Producing Access and Participation Plans
A sigh of relief was heard across the higher education nation a few weeks ago when the Access and Participation Plans for 2020-21 to 2024-25 were uploaded. As readers will know English higher education providers who currently charge undergraduate tuition fees of more than £6250 must produce an APP each year to demonstrate how they will spend the excess funding raised to improve the lot of students from underrepresented groups. This includes demonstrating how they will recruit an appropriate number of students from those groups and ensure that while those students are with them, they will be supported to ensure that they do not withdraw and achieve similar results to those of other students. As this can involve millions of pounds if you are a large university it is important to get your APP right. Thus, I understand in universities a number of people are involved in its production with a range of skills in analysing data and document writing. However, fortunately the Office for Students provides a mass of data and dashboards for each HE institution and helpfully suggests a template and guidance on how to complete a APP.
Is the HE provision at FE Colleges different?
Over 100 FE colleges complete APPs – almost as many as universities but except for a few very large FECs they have a much smaller number of courses and students than most universities and, of course HE programmes are a small part of their total educational provision. Generally, they offer different types of courses to universities – mainly vocational two-year HNDs and Foundation degrees and have proportionally a higher number of part time courses. The type of students they attract are more likely to be older, to have undertaken vocational qualification such as BTECs, to live close to the college and to come from more deprived and diverse backgrounds. Colleges also tend to charge lower tuition fees.
So, do they produce the same APPs?
Although the HE provision in colleges is generally very different to that of universities they are expected to produce the same APPs, using the same template and the same OfS supplied data. Whereas in a university a range of skilled staff will produce the APP, in a college it will be the HE manager and in smaller colleges managing HE will only be part of their job. When producing the APP, they will often not be able to use the dashboards provided by OfS because they have far fewer students and consequently there is often insufficient data to populate them. Also, because student numbers are low and for much of the data OfS round numbers up to highest or lowest ten, this can generate odd results and also in many areas of the spreadsheets provided there is no data. The challenges that colleges face in access and participation can be quite different to those faced by universities but they still have to use the same template. They still have to describe their strategic aims and objectives for their HE provision although this provision is entangled with FE provision as is the monitoring and evaluation of the targets.
This all sounds like FE colleges whingeing again but should an institution which has a much smaller and diverse range of students who are generating a much smaller excess funding pot without the same specialist staff and with poorer provided data have to comply with exactly the same requirements than universities? We accept that colleges need to account for how they are going to spend the excess income wisely. However, would it be better if an amended template was provided by the OFS with altered expectations, considering the unique role that FE colleges have in recruiting a much higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds compared with most universities and with their attendant challenges? Our research has demonstrated that many young people would not enter HE if it was not for their local college. Raven. N. 2019. ‘They would never have gone to university’: the unique role that further education colleges play in widening access’, FACE e-bulletin, 139 (August, 2019)
It would be very useful for our further research if colleagues in colleges and universities could give feedback on this suggestion.
John Baldwin used to be a Director of Curriculum at Stamford College, a medium sized FE college which involved responsibility for HE courses and half the college FE provision. He is now semi-retired but spends the autumn giving UCAS advice to students at the college, doing a bit of research with two colleagues and helping ex-colleagues to write their APPs.
Photo: Jeswin Thomas