The Uni Connect programme funded by the Office for Students has successfully engaged with disadvantaged pupils during the pandemic and built relationships and infrastructure across England to improve access to HE, the regulator has said – but a cloud hangs over future funding for this five-year-old initiative.
Since 2017, Uni Connect has established 29 regional partnerships, comprising universities, colleges, employers and local providers, to undertake outreach with young people in areas of low HE participation.
Ministers have suggested cuts to the programme, which may now find itself staring down the barrel of a gun as the comprehensive spending review nears.
The OfS review of Uni Connect, published Wednesday 14 July, coincided with the end of its second phase and found it had “engaged with high numbers of learners, schools and colleges in outreach activity, despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic”.
Partnerships have adapted successfully to new ways of working through the introduction of outreach hubs and in response to the pandemic
– OfS Uni Connect annual report
The OfS said its funding had helped Uni Connect build “a stronger evidence base around ‘what works’ in higher education outreach”. Sustained engagement with learners had a “positive impact on long-term outcomes, including the likelihood that a learner will successfully progress to higher education”, reviewers said. The initiative has built “strong infrastructure” with its local and national partners and is in a “strong position as it moves into phase three”, the OfS concluded.
The current Uni Connect funding allocation concludes this year, with a third phase of the initiative due to begin in principle in August. Ministers have suggested reductions to its budget from August in favour of other alternatives. In a letter to the OfS earlier this year, education secretary Gavin Williamson recommended axing £20 million from the £60 million budget, with savings going on student hardship funds (£5m) and student mental health projects (£15m).
In a consultation in January 2021 ahead of the third phase of Uni Connect, which sought to establish the strategy for the programme for the next two years, the OfS made a range of recommendations. The regulator said the network should expand work with Years 12 and 13 in further education colleges and adult learners to reach other forms of higher-level study, such as degree apprenticeships.
Further consultation is ongoing as the OfS looks to decide funding levels for phrase three following Mr Williamson’s letter. The upcoming comprehensive spending review this autumn will likely decide the fate of Uni Connect.
In a report released in June, the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) said that should ministers discontinue funding to Uni Connect, widening access spending in its entirety (institutional and collaborative) could fall after 2022/23. With funding cuts anticipated by many, a number of providers have expressed uncertainty over the future of the programme.