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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.

Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

After a week of 'people power' it is time to listen to students

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, reflects on a week that’s felt the force of people power – and says it’s time for university leaders to respond to students’ calls for change.

Eventful week sees HE buffeted by spelling and campus re-opening rows

Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, reviews another week in which higher education found itself in the spotlight, even when a royal funeral dominated the headlines.

Universities already working more closely with schools

As both the Budget and the recent grant letter to HEFCE reiterates the government’s call for universities to work more closely with, and potentially sponsor, schools (see HEi-know Briefing Report 336), HEi-know finds examples of close collaboration already taking place.


Many universities have been working with schools for years to encourage bright pupils from disadvantaged homes to apply to them or to more generally consider entering higher education. About half sponsor schools in some way and some have set up their own schools under the Free Schools and Academy system.

But problems with social mobility remain entrenched – just 24 per cent of children eligible for free school meals go on to higher education, compared with 42 per cent of those from more privileged backgrounds – and ministers have pledged to change this.

The government aims to double the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education by 2020, increasing by 20 per cent the number of students in HE from ethnic minority groups and boosting the number of men from poor backgrounds in HE.

With the freedom to charge tuition fees above £6,000 a year came the responsibility (in England) to spend a proportion of fee income on reaching out to under-represented groups, often through schools which had previously sent few pupils to university.

Spending on widening access to university to groups which are under-represented has been growing. Expenditure through access agreements agreed with Office for Fair Access is expected to reach £745 million in this academic year (2016-17), up from £725 million in 2014-15. Spending on outreach work by universities and colleges is expected to reach £149.5 million by 2019-20.

Now the drive to improve social mobility and deliver equality of opportunity is taking on a tighter focus and universities are being urged to concentrate on helping schools to raise the attainment of their pupils too.

The latest guidance on access agreements from the Office for Fair Access stresses the need for universities to work with schools to raise the attainment of their pupils. Professor Les Ebdon, the director of Fair Access, says universities should explain how they are working with schools to raise attainment in their access agreements.

More universities are being encouraged to set up or sponsor state-funded schools and academies too, but this latest guidance from Offa suggests the government has changed its mind about compelling universities to do so.  Already, about 60 universities sponsor state schools or academies, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The new guidance says “where appropriate, universities will be expected to strengthen these partnerships, including through the sponsorship of schools and academies to help drive faster improvements in attainment”.

It was last September that the Prime Minister Theresa May said universities should be required to sponsor a school or academy if they wanted to be able to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000.

The news that the government was going to make this a condition of charging higher fees worried many universities, with some vice chancellors privately saying universities did not have enough expertise in this area.

The government published a consultation paper in September called “Schools that work for everyone”, in which the proposals were set out.  It said universities should either set up a school in the state system (with capital and revenue costs being met by the government), or sponsor an academy. In both cases, the government said, these schools should be rated either good or outstanding over time and also, go on to extend their support to other schools, which should also have those ratings over time. However, 14 of the schools already being sponsored by English universities have reportedly been judged by Ofsted as requiring improvement while eight have been found to be inadequate.

The government may be rowing back on the idea of compulsion, but its aim of putting more responsibility on universities to raise educational standards and pupil achievement in schools is evident. Its consultation document says: “We believe that universities’ activity should focus more on where they can make the most difference: raising standards and attainment in the schools system.

“Spreading their expertise and experience through the schools system has the potential to create many new good school places - offering new opportunities to ordinary families, especially those just about managing – and improving the quality and diversity of sixth form students who go on to study at higher education institutions.”

In this Good Practice Briefing, HEi-know looks at a wide range of examples where universities are already working with schools to raise attainment and widen participation in higher education as well as examples of other outreach work.  

Leicester University

Many believe that to raise aspirations and motivate children to work hard at school so that they are in a position to go to university if they want to, you have to “catch them when they are young”. That is the thinking behind Leicester University’s outreach scheme involving primary schools. The university runs many different activities for secondary school pupils, but is now also linking up with local primary schools in areas where few go on to higher education.

Under its “Bright Sparks” scheme, university staff and students deliver workshops in primary schools and on campus, introducing children to the idea of going to university. They aim to talk to children and their parents to try to raise aspirations and dispel myths about studying for a degree.

Professor Jon Scott, Pro-Vice-Chancellor with special responsibility for Student Experience, said: “The work we have done has had an even greater impact than expected. It has really paid off. We are making connections earlier and getting pupils and their parents to start thinking about university and making choices sooner. It shows the earlier we can start talking to pupils and their parents, the better.”

Another initiative, called “Adopt a Class” involves students having video links with primary classes and writing to them about their experiences while studying abroad as part of their degree.

Hannah Ordoyno, the university’s widening participation manager, said: “Pupils really respond well to having student role models who can share their experience of university, rather than just hearing about it from a teacher. The work we are doing means that by the time students at an age where they can apply for a place through one of our progression programmes, we already have a good relationship with them, and their teachers are happy to recommend they go ahead.”

King’s College London

The government is encouraging universities to open or sponsor state-funded schools or academies. King’s College London opened a specialist sixth form college under the Free Schools programme in 2014. The A-level results of its first cohort in 2016 showed all 65 pupils achieved an A* or A grade in maths.

The university helped to develop the school’s curriculum (A-level maths, further maths, physics, computing and economics) and also gives every pupil a mathematical mentor, who is a student or a junior member of the maths department at King’s College London.  It also sends a PhD student to run weekly problem-solving workshops.


Birmingham University

In September 2015, Birmingham University opened the University of Birmingham School, which is a comprehensive academy for 11 to 16-year-olds with a sixth form which is academically selective. It will be at full capacity by 2020.

The school says it has an “unapologetic focus on personal and academic achievement” and a vision to transform lives by “raising the aspirations of a very diverse student population” so that they can “fulfil their potential and access the widest possible range of opportunities”.

It is a teaching school, where teachers are trained and says the Sixth Form is the vital link between the school and higher education.  It is a charitable company which is a subsidiary of the university but is managed by a separate academy trust.

The principal, Mike Roden, who was the first in his family to go to university, said: “We aim to raise our students’ aspirations and to maximise their potential by accessing the widest possible range of educational opportunities.

“We do this by offering, in an extended school day, a broad and balanced academic curriculum, by supporting the development of well-rounded people of strong character in a diverse and truly comprehensive student body, who have access to world-class facilities, resources and expertise through close links with the University community.” 

Exeter University

Exeter University offers secondary school pupils a two-year programme called “Exeter Progression” - a route in to higher education for young people from the South West from under-represented groups. The scheme is designed to give pupils a good idea of what university life is like and general guidance on higher education. It is divided in to subject strands and pupils come on to campus for various activities, meet staff and students and even go on field trips.  The minimum time commitment is for 18 to 20 hours a year and all travel expenses are reimbursed.

To be eligible for the Exeter Profession scheme, pupils have to have achieved at least six Bs and two Cs at GCSE, including maths and English at a minimum of grade C.

Once they have completed the programme, pupils are eligible for what is called an “alternative offer” from the university. This is the offer of a place at grades lower than those usually required for a particular subject – if they have received free school meals, are from disadvantaged post codes, are in care or their parents have not been to university.

Additionally, the university visits secondary schools and its staff and “Student Ambassadors” give wide-ranging presentations to pupils and teachers, which involve helping pupils through the university admissions process generally rather than necessarily encouraging applications to Exeter. Sessions include choosing courses, writing personal statements, the UCAS process, considering a competitive university, student finance and managing your money.   

Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam universities

In December 2016, the Higher Education Funding Council for England awarded funds to 29 consortia with the aim of their collaborating to boost the number of disadvantaged young people in their area going on to higher education.  The scheme, called the National Collaborative Outreach Programme, will run until 2019-20. Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam universities were successful bidders, together with their Higher Education Progression Partnership (HEPP), through which they already collaborate on outreach work.

The new project is specifically for South Yorkshire, which like other areas targeted by the national programme, has schools where participation in university courses or degree level apprenticeships is lower than would be expected based on GCSE results.

The national collaborative outreach programme aims to support the most disadvantaged young people in England to progress into higher education.

Professor Wyn Morgan, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching at the University of Sheffield and Chair of the HEPP board, said: "The two universities in Sheffield have an excellent track record of working collaboratively to support schools and colleges in the city and region. This funding will help to reach those most disadvantaged in the region to realise their potential and achieve success through higher education."

Sheffield Hallam University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Chris Husbands, said: "This new funding gives us a fabulous opportunity to target and extend our collaborative outreach work to a broader range of young people.

"We want to raise the aspirations of these young people who think university isn't achievable by working closely with schools and colleges to highlight the higher education opportunities available to them."

Sheffield Hallam University outreach highlights include work with families and communities, including interactive taster sessions at the university and in public spaces, roadshows for pupils under 16 to get them thinking about their future career and education choices, and a range of subject specific and general information sessions in schools and on-campus, designed around the needs of schools and colleges

The University of Sheffield's outreach activities, devised with regional and national schools and colleges, extend from hands-on “taster sessions” on university life and for particular subjects, both on and off campus, through to online open access study programmes, CPD for teachers and advisers, plus flagship longer-term schemes for the "most able, least likely", which provide ongoing support and pathways up to degree programmes at Sheffield and elsewhere.

The two universities also work together to give advice and help to young people in care to consider applying to university. They run a 22-week club for older primary-aged pupils called “Power-learning” and have activities for older pupils, including a three-day summer school. Sheffield also offers specific support to young people who are leaving or have left care. 

Glasgow Caledonian University

Through its Caledonian Club, Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) helps 14,600 children and 3,500 parents through early intervention programmes in Glasgow and in London’s Tower Hamlets area – where the university has a postgraduate campus. These involve the university linking with school pupils and their parents or carers.

Since its launch in 2008, the club has recruited more than 500 student mentors, many of whom are former club members themselves. It was designed with schools to enhance the curriculum and help build confidence and key life skills in its pupils and the university’s student mentors.

Core activities with whole year groups take place in school and in the GCU campus, with additional initiatives targeting pupils at different key stages. Initiatives are aimed at raising attainment through focused academic events as well as mentoring and coaching. Older pupils can move on to a Senior Mentoring Programme, where they can experience specific university courses and are supported through their UCAS application and offers to ensure they have the requirements for their chosen course.

The university already has a strong record on widening participation, with 97 per cent of its students coming from state schools, compared with 87 per cent for the Scottish sector as a whole. One in six of its Scottish entrants come from areas of the greatest deprivation, compared with the sector average of one in 10.  

University of East Anglia

Outreach work by the University of East Anglia (UEA) is coordinated centrally, but each department has an academic specialist who focuses on this for four days a week, while lecturing on the fifth. These specialists take the lead on subject-specific initiatives. Head of Outreach Charlotte Wheatland says the approach has led to some very interesting and relevant events being staged, including student lawyers going in to schools or pupils coming on to campus for sessions run by students on themes which are very relevant to them, such as social media and trolling.

The university has a mentoring scheme called Norfolk Scholars, run in partnership with the Villiers Park Educational Trust, which is aimed at raising attainment among pupils from backgrounds where people do not usually go to university.  It’s a long-term scheme, for pupils in Year 10 up to Year 13 who receive one-on-one mentoring every three weeks as well as masterclasses and residential visits. The aim is to improve academic attainment, confidence, skills and any other elements specific to individuals, for example improving attendance.

UEA also has a programme called “Medical Aspirations”, which aims to help people from under-represented groups find out about what it is like to study medicine. It includes a free three-day residential stay at the university, support with the application process, preparation for the UKCAT tests and opportunities to talk to current students.

The university also created the first literature and creative writing festival for 11 to 18-year-olds, called the FLY Festival. This is an annual event which mixes author events such as readings and question-and-answer sessions with workshops and entertainment.

UEA is part of a National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) with Cambridge University, Anglia Ruskin and others. Through this four-year scheme, funded by HEFCE, staff will be based permanently in schools in target areas to identify what is holding pupils back from going in to HE and to try to find solutions.

Head of Outreach at UEA Charlotte Wheatland said: “We have a very wide range of activities we deliver in schools and colleges which aim to raise aspiration and attainment of students across Norfolk and North Suffolk.” 

University of Kent

The University of Kent has been tracking the impact of its wide-ranging outreach work and has found that people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in Kent and Medway are 10 per cent more likely to go on to higher education if they have taken part in this.

The university sponsors a school in Gillingham and offers outreach activities to 10,000 people a year, mainly concentrating on school pupils in Year 6 (10 and 11-year-olds), up to sixth-formers.  It tries to boost the learning of younger pupils with support for maths and literacy and at sixth-form level, offers support in particular subjects from post-graduate students.

This academic year saw a new development where five doctoral students – studying the shortage subjects of physics, biosciences and geography – are teaching and gaining Qualified Teacher Status at the university’s sponsored school, Brompton Academy in Gillingham, while studying part-time for their PhDs.

Jennifer Wyatt, Head of the Partnership Development Office at Kent University said: “The University of Kent's widening participation work is integral to the institution's mission and its contribution to the region.

“In addition to seeing the positive impact that our innovative outreach has had on pre-HE learners, we are also delighted with the range of opportunities that this work provides to our current undergraduates and postgraduates as part of their student experience.” 

Staffordshire University

Staffordshire University has literally gone on the road to show school and college pupils what university can be like. Through its “Great Minds Bus Tour”, the university takes a modified double-decker bus out to schools and colleges.  The top deck of the bus is kitted out like a student flat and pupils can also put on virtual reality headsets to take “tours” of various campus locations, including the crime scene house, mock law courts, ceramics studios, journalism newsroom and motorsport labs.

The university is part of Higher Horizons+, the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) consortia led by Keele University. The consortia will boost existing outreach work by running activities for pupils in Years 9 to 13 in 92 schools and 25 colleges in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire. The scheme will particularly target groups which are under-represented in higher education, such as those from ethnic minority groups or economically disadvantaged young men.

Staffordshire University also offers three-day summer schools to older teenagers as well as “Gifted and Talented Days” for pupils in the area. These days, run in partnership with Port Vale FC, include workshops with university staff, students and local business partners, “with the aim of educating children from deprived areas about higher education and raising aspirations”. Staff also hold taster sessions for various subjects throughout the year.

The university also sponsors the Staffordshire University Multi Academy Trust which supports four schools across the county, with more schools due to join this year. The trust has strong links to the university’s School of Education, which is rated Outstanding by Ofsted for providing teacher training.

Georgina Kelly, the university’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations said: “We have a responsibility to support future generations and Staffordshire University is committed to improving opportunities for young people in the region, particularly for those children where progressing to higher education has never been seen as a consideration or an option.

 “Investing in children’s development from a young age is vital and we deliver a variety of outreach programmes to schools and colleges focused on engaging young people in higher education, raising aspirations and improving social mobility.”