OfS announces new director of access and participation

John Blake said universities must focus more on student outcomes to improve social mobility in England

The government has appointed John Blake to be the next director of access and participation at the Office for Students.

Currently head of public affairs and engagement for education charity Ark, Mr Blake said he looked forward “to working with universities and colleges to ensure that young people from all backgrounds are able to access the education that is right for their achievements and aspirations”.

He continued: “But attainment and access are only the first steps: they need to be matched by participation and success. It is crucial that students are able to study on high-quality courses which meet their needs, and are then supported so they are ready to embark on rewarding lives and careers after graduating.”

His appointment was announced on 24 November by Michelle Donelan, minister for further and higher education, during a speech on social mobility.

Prior to joining Ark, Mr Blake worked for the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange from 2017 to 2018, where he was head of education and social reform. Blake was also a founding governor of the Oak National Academy, which produced online learning resources during the pandemic.

He started his career as a history and politics teacher after completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford. More recently, Blake has acted as an advisor to the Department for Education (DfE) on initial teacher training (ITT) and a volunteer panellist on the controversial ITT market review.

Responding to the announcement, Professor Steve West, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “Universities are central to social mobility and levelling up opportunity, and are committed to accelerating access to higher education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, while ensuring students have a high quality university experience. Universities stand ready to play a full part in education recovery from the pandemic by reaching out further and wider to the talent of tomorrow and supporting efforts to raise school-age attainment.

“We look forward to working with John to build on the progress the sector has made by identifying areas for further improvement within access and participation plans to create more opportunities for students and help them to develop skills and reach their full potential. It is positive to see a focus on part-time courses, higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships and we look forward to working with government to boost demand for more diverse and flexible ways of learning.”

The former director for access and participation, Chris Millward, is leaving the OfS to join the University of Birmingham. The OfS chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, is also to exit shortly.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, published an open letter to Blake. He argued it was vital for social mobility that undergraduate places remain uncapped. He warned the incoming OfS director that he must pick a path between two, at times, competing views on the best way to boost access to university from disadvantaged parts of the country, a debate he likened to “thickets”. Some argue that improving school standards to increase exam results in deprived areas is the best solution; others suggest universities, with the aid of post-qualification admissions, should look beyond final grades to make entirely contextual offers. Hillman warns both views are “imperfect”.

Image © Ark.

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