Towards the end of May, the Office for Students (OfS) launched a new website for Uni Connect. At the same time, it published new guidance on creating Access and Participation Plans (APPs).
Equality of opportunity is a central pillar of the OfS’s 2022-25 strategic plan , and John Blake (the OfS’s Director of Fair Access and Participation) made it clear, shortly after taking up the role, that one of his chief priorities was to “see more and more impactful school-university partnership activity”. As we noted in this article, in the same speech, the OfS announced that it would be making changes to the APP system.
Around 40 HE providers have volunteered to submit new APPs for approval this year, but most will need to submit them next year, to take effect from 2025-26. Anything that helps HE providers fulfil their access and participation duties is welcome.
Access and Participation Plans
After consulting on its proposed new approach to regulating equality of opportunity, last March the OfS published a new version of regulatory notice 1. According to the introduction, the notice “explains how a provider can meet the requirements for an access and participation plan under statute, as well as how a provider can meet the expectations of good practice set out by the OfS.” It goes on to say that the guidance “must be read in conjunction with the detailed guidance provided in Regulatory advice 6.”
Regulatory advice 6 has now been published, along with several annexes, including an APP template, which HE providers are expected to use as the basis for their own APPs. Among other things, the advice explains how HE providers can:
- Identify the risks to equality of opportunity that affect them, including by using the OfS’s Equality of Opportunity Risk Register,
- Set objectives to mitigate the risks, and
- Design intervention strategies to meet those objectives. Paragraphs 71-75 of the advice discuss the importance of using evidence at this stage, to understand the impact that different activities are likely to have. It specifically mentions the Uni Connect evidence bank as a source of evidence.
Regulatory notice 1 and regulatory advice 6 both cover collaboration and partnership, in the context of designing interventions to address risks to equality of opportunity. According to paragraph 66 of regulatory notice 1, the OfS expects an HE’s interventions to include (among other things) “partnerships with schools, colleges, community and third sector organisations to support activity to raise attainment”. Paragraphs 79-82 of regulatory advice 6 outline the advantages of collaboration, and paragraphs 83-85 specifically discuss the Uni Connect programme.
Since 2017, "Uni Connect" partnerships have been working to support young people who are less likely to go onto higher education. HE providers can use the newly launched Uni Connect website to find their local Uni Connect Partnership. The website groups projects into six broad categories:
- Summer schools,
- Open days,
- Online events,
- Teacher training,
Pages devoted to each of these categories explains what they are and what benefits they bring.
Research on Uni Connect
The OfS published three new reports at the same time the website was launched:
- A research paper, commissioned by the OfS, titled: “The benefits of, and barriers to, collaborative access activity by higher education providers”,
- The latest review of impact evaluation evidence submitted by Uni Connect partnerships,
- An evaluation of "phase 3" Uni Connect activities.
These papers form part of the Uni Connect evidence bank referred to in regulatory advice 6. According to the first paper, some of the benefits of collaboration are the ability to share ideas, reduce duplication of effort, and to extend the reach of individual partners. Barriers include an underestimation of the time it will take for partnerships to bear fruit, the amount of funding they can require, and the difficulties flowing from these factors, for example in securing senior level, long-term support for the partnership within the HE institution itself.
The other two papers review the effectiveness of Uni Connect programmes from different perspectives. The second report builds on existing evidence to evaluate the success of different types of intervention in furthering different access and participation goals . For example, the evidence shows that summer schools can have a positive impact on learners’ knowledge of higher education, and help develop their confidence.
As noted above, regulatory notice 1 expects HE providers to collaborate with other parties with a view to improving attainment. Unfortunately, according to the second and third papers, there is currently limited evidence on what types of intervention improve attainment. The third paper, which reviewed the work of partnerships in designing attainment-raising programmes, found that these were at an early stage, but schools were generally positive about the prospect of having such programmes. In any event, Uni Connect partnerships will be delivering attainment-raising programmes from September 2023.
Whatever stage you are at, in terms of putting together a new APP, the resources covered in this article are likely to be useful (or essential, in the case of regulatory advice 6) in meeting the OfS’s requirements, and in devising a strategy for addressing the threats to equality of opportunity that face your institution.
 For an analysis of the strategic plan and the OfS’s regulatory activity, please see this article, published last May.
 The report reviews campus visits, advice and guidance, mentoring, multi-intervention approaches, skills and attainment workshops, subject masterclasses and summer schools.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, June 2023