AccessHE Blog Series

May 13, 2021, by Richard Boffey (Head of AccessHE) and Diana Beech (Chief Executive Officer, London Higher)

We’re very pleased to be launching AccessHE’s new blog series today. Our hope is that the blog will offer a means of sharing perspectives on, and approaches to, widening access and participation work in the higher education sector across London. The posts are written primarily with HE outreach practitioners and student support staff in mind, but will hopefully be of equal interest to anyone involved in HE and its role in ‘levelling up’ in the capital. The aim is to generate conversation and stimulate new thinking in the widening participation space, in line with AccessHE’s mission of supporting collaboration and best practice sharing.

Contributors to this series will for the most part be our members and partners with first-hand experience of working with communities who are currently underrepresented in London HE. However, for this first blog in the series, AccessHE and London Higher have teamed up to set out what we see as some of the key access and participation issues facing the city currently – issues that we hope this blog series can help to address. The list below highlights some areas on which we will be focussing our energies in 2020/21 and beyond, and which we think lend themselves most readily to pan-London collaboration.

1. Understanding the challenge

An obvious priority is to better understand the access and outcomes gaps that are characteristic of London HE, namely: what causes them? How can they be addressed?

We already have an idea of the most pronounced gaps through what London HEIs have identified in their current Access and Participation Plans (see fig 1). The most significant relate to access rates amongst students from low HE participation areas and degree outcomes for certain Black and Asian ethnic groups. The fact that these gaps also exist in other parts of the HE sector makes them no less of a pressing concern for London and whilst HEIs in the capital have set themselves individual targets in this area, the question of how such gaps can most effectively be eliminated remains an open one.

Figure 1 - AccessHE member APP targets

Figure 1 – AccessHE member APP targets

AccessHE has an important role to play here by sharing relevant practice and exploring its application in the London context. This builds on the activities of the widening participation sector’s What Works Centre, the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO), whilst also enabling a sharper focus on approaches that work for London specifically. The blog is just one tool for sharing practice and insights; our Actions Forums and our wider research and advocacy work are others.

We intend for these tools to support practitioners in closing pre-identified access and outcomes gaps, but also in understanding emerging gaps following the Covid-19 pandemic, which has had a disproportionate impact on many of the same learner groups that have historically formed the focus of widening participation efforts.

2. Building a community for change

Just as important as practice sharing is collaborating in the delivery of widening participation work. This is especially true given the stretching, long-term nature of Access and Participation Plan targets in London and the extent to which the pandemic has interrupted work towards meeting these. Now more than ever, existing partnerships with London schools and colleges, with local employers, with the third sector and with local government must be strengthened and deepened. There are of course practical grounds for this: a likely reduction in Uni Connect funding and the removal of London Weighting from 2021/22 will inevitably put further pressure on access and participation budgets, making partnership-working the most effective use of already stretched resources.

More than this though, collaboration is a proven means of meeting access and participation targets, not least when it comes to engaging harder to reach and/or vulnerable groups. A case in point is AccessHE’s Care Experienced and Estranged Students Forum. By facilitating collaboration between HEIs, virtual schools, local authorities and third sector organisations, the forum has helped to develop more joined-up, multi-agency forms of support for these students and has expanded the reach of this support across London once it has been set up. The sector itself has called for this ‘whole system’ collaborative approach to ensuring equality of opportunity in HE, as the recent OfS-commissioned review of Access and Participation Plan implementation made clear.

With the government currently seeking to rebalance the FE and HE sectors and promote increased level 4 and 5 study, we can also expect a greater emphasis on collaboration between HEIs, FE colleges, employers and other training providers in delivering outreach from 2021/22 onwards. It is important to underline here that HEI-led outreach can help to raise awareness of study pathways into HE via higher technical (i.e. level 4 and 5) routes and therefore, far from running counter to the government’s policy agenda, actually help to realise it.

3. Life Chances for Londoners

Finally, widening participation work in London must play its part in the city’s post-Covid recovery. This means ensuring that it targets Londoners most impacted by the virus, chiefly (but not exclusively) those from low-income households and/or in low-skilled professions as well as certain Black and Minority Ethnic Groups. It should take a whole lifecycle approach, supporting learners to access HE but also to succeed once on course via dedicated digital learning support and careers advice. In doing this there is a chance to tie in with several of the GLA’s Coronavirus Recovery Missions, in particular the ‘New Deal for Young People’ and ‘Good Work for All’ Missions. Our ‘AccessE3’ project in Tower Hamlets, co-delivered with several HE providers and community arts organisations and supported by a London Community Response grant, offers a blueprint for such work.

Whilst the focus of the government’s levelling up agenda to date has been on ‘left behind’ areas and communities outside of London, the reality is that levels of inequality within the capital are higher than in any other part of the country. The vision for widening participation work outlined above ensures that Londoners too can benefit from levelling up.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our thoughts on some of the access and participation priorities that lie ahead, and that you will continue to engage with the projects and ideas that are shared via this blog. Please do let us know, too, if you would be interested in contributing a blog on behalf of your institution – we’re always on the lookout for submissions.