Improving access and participation in higher education

Dan West, Policy and Research Lead for Social Mobility at the University of Derby, explains the importance of taking a new approach in the University’s Access and Participation Plan (APP).

In September 2019, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, warned that universities must “up their game” and close the wide gulf in the success and progression of advantaged and disadvantaged students in higher education. Government statistics published earlier this year revealed that in 2016-17, young, full-time, disadvantaged students were more likely to drop out of university in their first year (8.8%) than their more advantaged peers (6.0%).

Our Strategic Framework 2018-2030 seeks to ‘empower people to achieve their potential and make a positive contribution to society.’ Two of its principles lie at the heart of the access and participation agenda.Firstly, that ‘higher education should be equitable, inclusive and open to all who have the ambition and desire to learn and progress,’ and secondly, ‘we understand and embrace our role in raising aspirations, improving skills and adding value to the lives of everyone in our region.’ We are putting these principles into action at Derby by working hard to eliminate inequalities that exist across the student lifecycle.

What are Access and Participation Plans?

Access and Participation Plans set out how higher education providers will improve equality of opportunity for students. They include the provider’s ambition for change, what it plans to do to achieve that change, the targets it has set and the investment it will make to deliver the plan. At Derby, our students’ address, their ethnic group, and whether or not they are disabled are all factors which link to unacceptable gaps in continuation rates, attainment of a good honours degree and graduate-level employability.

The University’s APP strategic objectives for 2020-21 to 2024-25 are to:

  • Eliminate unexplained gaps in continuation (6.8pp), degree outcomes (16.3pp) and progression (6.6pp) between white and black students
  • Eliminate the unexplained gaps in continuation (6.8pp) and degree outcomes (13.0pp) between students from areas of high and low deprivation
  • Eliminate the gap in degree outcomes (4.5pp) between disabled/non-disabled students
  • Eliminate unexplained gaps in progression (6.6pp) between white and asian students

Our Centre for Student Life (CSL) led the production of the APP working in partnership with academic colleges, professional services departments, and the Union of Students (US). The US Vice-President (Welfare) co-chaired our APP Planning Group, and a series of consultation exercises ensured that the student voice is at the heart of our new plan.

Why do we submit an Access and Participation Plan to the OfS?

An approved APP is a condition of registration with the Office for Students (OfS) and allows providers to charge above the basic tuition fee cap.  On 21st September 2019, Chris Millard, Director of Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, wrote to our Vice-Chancellor to confirm approval of our APP, covering academic years 2020-21 to 2024-25. The plan is accessible here:

We will report on the progress we have made against our targets, honouring the commitments we made to our students, through the OfS’ annual monitoring processes.

What are we doing to close gaps?

Our APP Project Group is leading implementation arrangements as we move into a crucial preparatory phase between now and July 2020. This includes identifying stakeholder engagement, communication and consultation requirements, agreeing data requirements, developing a theory of change for each of our strategic objectives, and creating work packages for each target group of students.

Work is underway on the development of a new suite of strategic measures that will help to create more a more inclusive community and secure equitable outcomes for our students:

  • A new Learning and Teaching Strategy – this will ensure our measures and activities are evidence-based and will maximise the positive impact for our target groups of students.
  • Learner Analytics – we are working in partnership across the University to develop a suite of tools to enhance our digital proficiency. This will enhance our understanding of the extent, timing and nature of challenges faced by our target groups.
  • Advance HE Student Success Framework – we are the first higher education institution in the country to commit to embedding the agency’s best practice frameworks for student success.
  • Attainment Policy – work has already begun on the development of a new institutional policy that aims to address attainment gaps within the institution.
  • Commuter students – understanding the challenges that our commuter students may face… to enable us to provide tailored support for our target groups and help close gaps in continuation and attainment.
  • Development of an APP evaluation strategy – it is vital that we evaluate our practice to understand what works in closing gaps and to share our findings across the sector
  • University Mental Health Charter- as pilot institution for the Charter, we will support the sector to develop and implement a whole university approach to student mental health, and analyse and identify areas for improvement at Derby.

Whole institution approach

Many of our staff and students are already actively engaged in the APP Project Group and the development of our new strategic measures. However, we can only tackle entrenched inequalities if our whole University community engages with the APP and works together in a clear partnership framework to implement the emerging policies, strategies and activities.

This means asking difficult questions and learning from each other, studying the good practice that exists in the sector, and supporting people to deliver change. We all need to be prepared to try new approaches, take risks that push us out of our comfort zones, and learn from our successes and failures.

If you would like any further information about the APP, please contact Louise Rutherford, Head of Employability and Social Mobility or Dan West, Policy and Research Lead for Social Mobility, within the Centre for Student Life.

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