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The Office for Students has announced it is to fund an “impact and evidence” centre to help universities meet tough new targets to eliminate equality gaps in two decades.
It will be set up by a consortium from King’s College London, Nottingham Trent University and the Behavioural Insights Team, and will attempt to provide better “hard evidence” about what works in the £800 million drive to improve access.
The move follows the announcement by the OfS of “transformational” targets to eliminate gaps in entry and drop-out rates between the most and least represented groups, and gaps in degree outcomes between white and black and disabled and non-disabled students.
New guidance has been issued by the OfS for the submission of 2020/21 access and participation plans, which must be approved as a condition of university registration.
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said:
“A huge amount of time, money and resources are already invested in access and participation, but there is a lack of understanding about what works and staff working at the coal face have been calling for a central place for evidence on effective approaches to be systematically gathered and shared.”
At the same time as establishing the exchange, the OfS expects universities to set stretching targets for themselves and take “real action to close gaps in their institutions”.
“I often hear university leaders say that improving equality of opportunity and outcomes is a top priority for them, and that a great university must be fully inclusive of talent and potential from all backgrounds. My message to them is clear: this is the moment to act on it,” he said.
Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, has written to the OfS setting out the priority areas to focus on in the coming financial year, including greater and faster progress on access and participation for disadvantaged and under-represented groups.
“It is vital that our key target groups, including disabled students and those from white working class and ethnic minority backgrounds, can not only access higher education, but successfully complete their courses and then progress into quality employment or further study,” the letter said.
The secretary of state also wants the OfS to focus on “those parts of the country with the greatest challenges”, including the North East and in the government’s Opportunity Areas.
Universities are expected to take account in their plans of the access and participation national key performance measures (KPMs) and associated targets set by the OfS.
These include eliminating the gap in participation at higher-tariff universities between the most and least represented groups by 2038-39. For 18- and 19-year-olds, the OfS target is to reduce the gap in participation from a ratio of 5:1 to a ratio of 3:1 by 2024-25.
Unexplained differences in non-continuation rates between most and least represented groups are also targeted for elimination by 2024-25, as is the unexplained gap in degree outcomes between white students and black students and between disabled and non-disabled students.
The reforms require vice chancellors to set out their strategy over a five-year time frame and set “stretching, outcomes-based targets focused on the gaps providers identify in their assessment of performance”.
Universities will then produce a yearly impact report to highlight the outcomes they have achieved, including progress against targets, and identifying lessons learned from approaches that have not worked as well as expected. The report will provide a narrative alongside information on outcomes in order to place the findings in context. Student bodies should also be given the opportunity to include a commentary.
The OfS guidance says universities should focus on underrepresented groups including: students from areas of lower higher education participation, lower household income and/or lower socioeconomic status groups; some black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students; mature students; disabled students (those in receipt of disabled students allowance (DSA) and those who have declared a disability but are not in receipt of DSA); care leavers; people estranged from their families; people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities; refugees and children of military families.
Susannah Hume, interim director of the evidence and impact exchange and associate director for What Works at King's College London, said:
“We hope the evidence and impact exchange will be a powerful force for good in the sector, helping senior decision makers and practitioners base their access and participation initiatives on the best evidence of what works.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, welcomed the creation of the impact and evidence centre.
He said: “A key challenge to making further progress has been the lack of access to evidence on what works. This exchange has the ability to provide this – from improving understanding of how to work effectively with schools, through to what works in reducing the BME attainment gap and supporting successful graduate outcomes initiatives for all students. We look forward to engaging with the Exchange to ensure it supports universities to deliver further progress.”
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