Forty years of Access to HE

By Ann-Marie Karadia, Access Officer, Colleges and Alternative Providers, Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)

Since responsibility for Access to HE transferred[1] to QAA in 1997 we have endeavoured to ensure the qualification is robustly regulated under our Access Recognition Scheme. The Access Recognition Scheme applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland; a separate access scheme is run by SWAP[2] in Scotland. QAA’s stewardship and development of the Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma has seen a locally recognised qualification achieve national status. Most recently, QAA’s development of a credit-based Diploma with a common grading scheme, size and structure resulted in the qualification being accepted into the UCAS tariff from the September 2017 entry.

The Access to Higher Education (HE) Diploma is a credit-based level 3 qualification designed to prepare adults for higher education. It develops the skills, subject knowledge and confidence needed in a supportive and encouraging environment. It is equivalent to A‑levels and is recognised by UK higher education providers. In any one year, around 25,000 students are accepted on to higher education courses having successfully completed an Access to HE Diploma. Around half of these students are aged 25 or older; many left school with few qualifications. The majority progress to health-related graduate careers.

The academic year 2018-19 is an exciting one for the qualification as it celebrates 40years since the first access courses were devised and approved by higher education providers. The local collaborations between HE and (further education) FE providers facilitated by Access Validating Agencies (AVAs) to secure robust progression routes for adult students remain a key feature of the Diploma, especially around course approval. Nowadays most AVAs work nationally and many develop Diplomas in-house, responding to requests from their delivery partners. However, the Access to HE Diploma retains its local flexibility and continues to meet national priorities. Business support services made available to AVAs from QAA mean they can draw on labour market information to inform their course development. These support services are just one element of a new style business plan which supports our recognition and development work.

New AVA monitoring activities were introduced in September 2016 which:

  • monitor the effectiveness of an AVA’s processes for self-assessment and the adequacy of consequent planned action for licensing compliance and improvement
  • identify AVAs and areas of AVA licensing that are at risk and ensure AVAs take prompt and appropriate action to reduce risks.

In September 2018 a new benchmark was introduced for AVAs who must now report annually against the National Achievement Rate (NARTs[3]) and investigate all provision which falls outside our tolerance bands. New training and business services have been designed to support these new activities and further improve quality assurance processes within AVAs.

The Access to HE grading scheme is also under review. Introduced in 2009-10 the grade scheme and updated Diploma specification facilitated the inclusion of the Access to HE Diploma on the new UCAS tariff. In 2016-17 11% of Access to HE students achieved an all Distinction profile which compares favourably with the proportion of A level students achieving AAA[4] (13%); both results receiving 144 points on the Tariff.

We are working to develop subject descriptor for the Access to HE Diploma (Medicine) with a group of the UK’s medical schools, Access to HE providers and AVAs. The qualification’s collaborative origins being used to move forward this suite of Diplomas designed specifically for progression to undergraduate degrees in medicine.

Standards issues are common across all levels of education, as noted in recent press coverage, and January saw the first QAA National Access to HE standardisation event. Course providers and AVAs from across the scheme came together to scrutinise units and assessments across the subject spectrum. Standardisation is common within AVAs but this is the first time it has been across the Recognition Scheme. In recent years AVAs have participated in national events to develop exemplar training materials for their Diploma moderators in partnership with QAA.

The grade scheme review and development works will be overseen by our Access Qualification Development Group.[5]. The Group will also take forward key themes and actions identified at national standardisation event.

New relationships are being developed within the prison community to raise the profile of the Diploma in the rehabilitation of offenders, and existing relationships with the armed forces, developed in response to research by Dr Mel Macer of Bath Spa University[6], are being strengthened. Experience in both the armed forces and prison communities has shown that participation in the Diploma has changed the way the students think and contributes positively to their return to civilian life. In an attempt to develop these relationships we are holding an Access to HE forum[7] to discuss five of the main challenges facing the Diploma and its students, bringing together AVAs, providing and receiving institutions, students, employers and policy makers.

QAA published the first of its statistical publications in 1999. In keeping with the collaborative nature of Access to HE experts, QAA brought together HE and FE data collection agencies to refine the AVA data collection profile and publish statistical reports. That Data Development Group continues today with a wider membership, including AVAs, and looks to improve the available data and its presentation. The publications are derived from analysis of data received from the Education and Skills Funding Agency for publicly funded provision in England, and from the AVAs about Diploma registrations, and UCAS and HESA.

At the time of writing data for 2017-18 is not published, although the fall in student registrations on Access to HE Diplomas continues, the biggest falls continue to be in health. We have observed a decline of approximately 5,000 learner registrations in health-related courses over the last two years.

Published data for 2016-17 underlined the continued positive impact of this qualification in widening participation in higher education:  

24,895 Access to HE Diploma students entered higher education in the UK, of whom: 

  • 22% of Access to HE students accepted to university are from low participation areas – compared with 10% of their peers with other qualifications.
    • 32% of Access to HE students accepted to university are from ethnic minority backgrounds – compared with 24% of their peers with other qualifications
    • 87% of Access to HE Students accepted to university are over 21, compared with 34% of their peers with other qualifications
    • 18% had a disability or learning difficulty, compared with 11% of their peers with other qualifications[8]
  • The percentage of applicants with an Access to HE qualification, accepted for university entry in September 2017 was higher for 22 – 65 age groups, compared to the same age groups entering with other qualifications.
  • In 2016-17, of all Diplomas awarded:
    •  52% were in health, public services and care
    • 14% were in science and mathematics.
    • 13% were in social sciences

There remain threats and challenges for qualifications such as Access to HE Diplomas, among them the extension of Advanced Learner Loans to those aged over 19 since 2016‑17; the replacement of NHS bursaries with loan funding in England; the introduction of degree apprenticeships in nursing and other health-related occupations; devolution of the Adult Education Budget; and area reviews of colleges. These challenges become valuable opportunities for the Access to Higher Education Diplomas as work-patterns change and second, third and even fourth careers become the norm. Its collaborative origins, combined with new technologies and greater use of relevant data, can ensure it remains a key contributor to progression to higher education from individuals needing that second chance – maybe for a further 40 years?


[1] The national framework for Access to HE was established under the authority of CNAA and CVCP, it transferred to HEQC and subsequently to QAA in 1997

[2] http://www.scottishwideraccess.org/

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/sfa-national-success-rates-tables

[4] https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/education-skills-and-training/a-levels/draft-percentage-of-students-achieving-3-a-grades-or-better-at-a-level/latest

[5] http://www.accesstohe.ac.uk/AboutUs/Committees/Pages/AQDG.aspx

[6] http://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/8454/1/8454.pdf

[7] https://events.qaa.ac.uk/qaaevents/frontend/reg/thome.csp?pageID=11973&eventID=34&CSPCHD=003001000000vtf6Y8CnhRZSxhzSu$lSxs7ypIBzSOkktcBda1

[8] Data source HESA

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