Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Evidence Option: Hitting Targets with Practised Precision

Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Evidence Option: Hitting Targets with Practised Precision

Article excerpt

New Office for Fair Access strategies will help universities learn what works best in their efforts to reach ambitious goals, says Les Ebdon.

This week, the Office for Fair Access publishes its first guidance under my directorship - guidance to English universities and colleges on what we would like to see in their 2014-15 access agreements. Given the furore that greeted my appointment, I hope institutions don't find it too much of an anticlimax. There will be changes, but they are not the dramatic ones that some perhaps expect.

If I had to characterise the approach that we are taking at Offa, I would describe it as one of greater challenge coupled with greater support. We want institutions to set themselves targets that stretch them in the knowledge that their progress in meeting these goals will be scrutinised. Institutions have already set themselves ambitious targets under their 2013-14 access agreements and we expect them to maintain the ambition of these.

By way of support, the national strategy that we are developing with the Higher Education Funding Council for England aims to help institutions to make better, faster progress in improving fair access and widening participation. In the meantime, we will be undertaking significantly more research and analysis to improve the evidence base on access and the successful retention of students. We will also be working more closely with institutions and have already started to do this, for example, by assigning them a nominated Offa contact.

So what changes will you find in the guidance we are publishing this week? First, there is a much stronger emphasis on the need for evidence and evaluation. While I appreciate that evaluating access activities is not always easy, it is vital if we are to understand what works well and to share good practice across the sector. Institutions estimate that by 2017 they will be spending Pounds 809 million under their access agreements, and clearly it is important to be sure that this money is being spent effectively. We are therefore asking universities and colleges to do more to evaluate their access programmes, and to refine and target programmes as evidence of their effectiveness emerges.

Second, we are asking all institutions to include long-term outreach activity in their agreements, including how they will work with children from as early as key stage 2, and with adults who have the potential to be mature students. By reaching out to bright students in schools and communities with historically low participation in higher education through activities such as summer schools, masterclasses and mentoring, universities help to raise aspirations and attainment levels - both of which are crucial factors in determining whether someone from such a background will go on to university. …

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