A SIG is born: Reflections on the establishment of the APP Special Interest Group
Back in the Spring of 2021 I found myself pondering over my institution’s Access and Participation Plan (APP) monitoring return submission and some of the challenges we (I was employed at the Open University at the time) were facing in terms of reporting data, data protection and ethical research and evaluation methods. Exacerbated by the pandemic, my previous network of strategic widening participation (WP) leads and practitioners, with whom I would engage informally at various conferences and events, had all but disappeared. An off the cuff email provoked a dialogue with a colleague from Southampton University, Gino Graziano, in relation to the potential development of an APP network, to enable like-minded colleagues across the sector to give and receive support in the implementation, monitoring and reporting of their APP. Gino had also engaged in similar conversations with one of his contacts, Clare Allison, from the University of Kent. The three of us met, online, to work through what such a network might look like, how it could be run and whether there was potential for it to be affiliated with an existing WP network. Having close ties with FACE, this was naturally our first port of call and our presentation to the FACE Exec in September 2021 resulted in a positive outcome: the FACE APPSIG was born.
Based on our own experiences, we anticipated that there would be a high level of interest in the group, but we wanted to ensure that it provided added value, and that any initial enthusiasm was not diminished over the months that followed, due a lack of purpose, structure and content within the meetings. We also wanted to ensure that we were not see as the ‘leaders’ of the group, more like facilitators to enable the network to function but providing members with a sense of ownership of the SIG. We needn’t have been worried. Since the first meeting where we presented our ideas in relation to the aims and objectives of the SIG, and invited members to sign up our numbers have grown. We currently have 115 members, representing 75 universities and a small number of alternative and specialist providers. Attendance at our meetings has been consistently high, (often 60+) only really impacted by clashes with other events hosted by equally valuable networks such as NEON and TASO. Our numbers probably increased when we have had colleagues from the OFS, such as John Blake and Charlie Leyland, joining us to share their thinking and respond to sector and institutional concerns. The ethos of the group is to be open, honest, transparent and supportive. This has certainly been evident in the discussions that have taken place between members of the SIG and between the SIG and the OFS. My perception, and I hope that of others, is that this is a mutually respectful relationship. We, as APP leads can seek clarity regarding OFS priorities and be open in sharing our concerns and challenges in this regard. In openly listening to the sector voice, the OFS can not only develop their guidance through informed discussion, but can also use the SIG as a consultative forum within which honest feedback at a sector level can be provided.
As a sector, I think we know that there is a gap that the APPSIG does not fill, and that is the strategic priority given to the APP by some senior leaders. Members of the SIG are committed to widening participation, for many it’s not just a response to regulatory requirements but a genuine desire to make a difference for students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds. However, without senior leader commitment and endorsement for those working to deliver APPs, it can often be a lonely place, struggling to get their voices heard and change implemented, as they compete with a multitude of priorities both at a strategic provider-level and also within faculties and professional service departments. Our last APPSIG convenors meeting, which has also extended in membership, discussed what the next year might hold for the SIG. The value that members place on having the space to informally discuss some of the issues they are facing as they implement their APPs is obviously something that we will continue to deliver. We also want to develop some break-out groups that have a specific focus and which can bring together experts within that field. We’re thinking evaluation and student voice as a starter. However, there is also a need to use the group to lobby and influence at a policy and strategic level to fill the gaps identified above, enabling all those working so hard to make a difference to students’ lives to really gain the traction they need.