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Executive summary

Purpose

1. This report examines the success of the higher education (HE) system to date in securing increased access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for disabled students, and in driving down the number of students that withdraw early from their studies. It also highlights the challenges that remain, particularly with regard to unexplained gaps in participation in different localities and the persistent unexplained differences in degree, employment and further study outcomes for students from ethnic minority groups, disadvantaged groups and disabled students not in receipt of Disabled Students’ Allowance.

2. Supporting this report are five independent research reports in three key areas of activity:

  1. Critically reviewing research and practice to understand and address differential outcomes, in terms of continuation, attainment, and progression into postgraduate study and graduate employment.
  2. Reviewing provision and support for disabled students with a particular focus on support for students with specific learning difficulties and students with mental health problems or intensive support needs.
  3. Developing an outcomes framework to enable universities and colleges to understand and evidence more robustly the effectiveness and impact of their interventions in this area.

3. Finally, the report describes what HEFCE will do to work with and support the sector to address these challenges and, crucially, to develop systematic and robust ways to measure the effectiveness and impact of the interventions they deliver within the context of the recently announced Teaching Excellence Framework and the Quality Assessment Review currently being undertaken by HEFCE and the HE funding bodies in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Key points

Progress to date

4. Access to HE continues to improve for young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds. HEFCE analysis has shown that the young participation rate was 4 percentage points higher than the trends in GCSE attainment implied in 2009.

5. Completion rates for students have improved. The non-completion rate for full-time students has improved from a rate of 14 per cent in 2003-04 to 10 per cent in 2013-14. [Note this sentence originally began 'The non-continuation rate', and this was corrected on 30 September 2015]

6. HE providers have successfully widened access for disabled students. The number of disabled students entering HE increased from just over 16,700 new entrants in 2003-04 to just over 51,300 in 2012-13.

Remaining challenges

7. There remains a large gap in the HE participation rates between the most and least advantaged groups.

8. The Prime Minister has set a target to double the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in HE from the level it was in 2009 by 2020. This requires a greater increase in participation rates than historical trends have shown.

9. The number of older learners participating in HE has continued to decline from just over 1 million learners in 2010-11 to under 800,000 in 2013-14.

10. There are unexplained differences in access to HE in different places.

11. There are worse outcomes – in terms of degree attainment and progression to postgraduate study and/or graduate employment – for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (as measured by POLAR3), students from ethnic minority groups and disabled students not in receipt of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA).

How the system works: themes from independent research

12. There is isolated work across institutions to address differential outcomes, but it is fragmented and not well evidenced. There is a need for a joined-up sector-wide response to secure a step-change that will maximise outcomes for all students.

13. Institutional support for disabled students is now disproportionately reliant on tuition fee contributions from all students. Furthermore, the DSA process promotes a medical model of disability, which is out of step with the joined-up, student-centred approaches institutions wish to take and which are commensurate with the social model at the heart of equalities legislation.

14. Despite commendable work and the progress made on both access and retention highlighted earlier, it remains difficult for institutions to demonstrate the relative impact of different interventions and approaches to support access and student success.

What HEFCE will do

Demonstrating effectiveness and impact

15. HEFCE will continue to collect data from institutions on how they invest public funding and their fee income in activity to widen access, improve retention and success, and support progression to further study or graduate employment.

16. HEFCE will work with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to ensure that there is a consistency of approach to our respective data returns and minimise duplication and burden on the sector.

17. HEFCE will work with institutions, Government and experts in the field on the development of indicators and approaches that recognise the added value that institutions deliver to diverse groups of students.

18. HEFCE will make it a condition of grant for any new initiatives it funds that all projects are robustly evaluated using rigorous research methods.

19. HEFCE will continue to explore how national data sets can be further ‘mined’ to assess the impact of HE on UK productivity and society more broadly, and where the commissioning of further national research and sector-wide analysis is needed.

20. HEFCE will work with institutions to understand how existing data collections and management information can more effectively be used in their evaluation of activity and interventions, particularly with regard to students’ success and progression.

21. HEFCE will continue to encourage institutions to join the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) network in order to benefit from the robust tracking service HEAT provides with respect to institutions’ outreach activity.

Addressing differential outcomes from HE study for different groups

22. HEFCE will work with Government and the sector to support the development and take-up of systemic approaches to addressing differential outcomes, and to embed this within the evolving landscape of quality assessment and teaching excellence.

23. HEFCE is already piloting approaches to measuring learning gain and exploring approaches to understanding social capital and social agency, and we will build on this to develop indicators that demonstrate institutions’ success in supporting retention, attainment and progression for students from all backgrounds.

24. HEFCE will develop a programme to support institutions in the development and rigorous testing of interventions to address differential outcomes.

25. HEFCE will work in partnership with other agencies such as the Higher Education Academy to help institutions achieve the shifts in culture necessary to lead to long-term sustainable improvements in student outcomes.

26. HEFCE will continue to make the case for a student premium to support institutions in maximising the retention and success of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, building on the advances secured to date. This will enable all institutions to continue to improve existing approaches, or develop or adopt new approaches that will maximise the outcomes for students who are particularly at risk of not reaching their full potential or of withdrawing from HE entirely.

27. HEFCE will use the findings of the Postgraduate Support Scheme, due to be published in September 2015, to identify with Government and the sector the activities and funding approaches needed to maximise progression during the coming years, building on the outcomes from the Government’s postgraduate consultation.

Provision and support for disabled students

28. As HEFCE develops its approach to future funding and support for disabled students, we will work closely with Government with a view to ensuring that the models supported are:

  • efficient
  • balanced in terms of public investment and private funding through tuition fee income
  • invested in approaches which impact on student outcomes and are informed by rigorous evaluation.

Addressing gaps in participation in HE

29. HEFCE will continue to undertake high-quality analysis of participation patterns, and will continue to present this analysis in an accessible and useful way for those within the networks and institutions to enable them to better target their activity.

30. HEFCE recognises that most HEFCE-fundable HE providers have access agreements with OFFA, in which they commit to spending a proportion of their undergraduate higher fee income (fee income above the basic level of £6,000 for full-time students and £4,500 for part-time students) on access measures. It is also the case that after expenditure on financial support, the second-largest category of spend is on activity to widen access into HE through outreach and other activity. In the latest monitoring of access agreements for the academic year 2013-14, institutions reported spending £92 million of their additional fee income on access activity, and are predicted to spend progressively more on this activity over the next five years.

31. As a consequence, any HEFCE funding for access activity must focus on those areas where public investment can add most value beyond that made by institutions. Therefore, any future HEFCE funding to institutions will be targeted at those areas where there are known to be unexplained gaps in participation for young people.

Action required

32. No action is required in response to this document.

Date: July 2015

Ref: 2015/14

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded further education colleges, Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Learning and teaching, Widening participation, Student services, Finance, Estates

Enquiries should be directed to:

Sarah Howls, tel 0117 931 7073, email s.howls@hefce.ac.uk