Communities: A renewed priority for outreach?
Outreach work has never been easy but is currently under pressure as never before. Higher education providers are urgently refreshing their offer to allow some form of activity to continue during the COVID-19 emergency and beyond. Engagement with existing partners is likely to continue, albeit in different ways, but reaching new potential students and widening access and participation from target groups will be much more challenging.
Online solutions have developed rapidly, but students not considering HE are less likely to use them, and homeschooling has highlighted the disparity of online access. Over the coming months and perhaps for much longer, we are told that schools will be prioritising academic work with a more limited curriculum, leaving fewer opportunities for outreach activity, however innovative. There will be no school-based careers evenings or parents’ events for outreach staff to attend. Open Days and visits to universities are likely to be virtual. For potential adult learners, the focus on securing and maintaining an income is likely to take precedence over hopes of increasing their qualifications for some time to come.
Meanwhile, the government is seizing the moment to model a post-qualification admissions system and is aiming to offer all school leavers an apprenticeship, shifting the focus towards further education colleges and away from universities. These ideas may be welcomed by some, but the drivers are unclear, and if implemented, the outcomes may be far from the headline promises. There are many possible consequences, not least the potential to affect the plans and decisions of widening participation target groups much more than others, and not necessarily for their long-term benefit. There is also a danger that the proposed changes may lead to different pathways being followed by young people in schools, leading to a two-tier system by default. It will be important to ensure that there is information available to everyone about the full range of possibilities, including HE in all its forms. In schools, this will be needed from lower secondary or even younger age groups, with parental involvement enhanced to ensure understanding of the long-term implications of the choices made. To reach them may require a shift towards the locations where under-represented communities live. This approach has always been preferable for younger year groups and for mature learners and it may hold particular promise under the current circumstances. One positive change in recent months has been the response of neighbourhoods, and the time may be right to harness the increased willingness to participate in community activity.
As an example, within a collaborative outreach programme in the wider Sheffield City Region, we tried impartial community-based activity several years ago in hard-to-reach areas, where schools were not engaging readily and from which attendance at university-based events was low. We wanted to have a presence in the places where our target group lived but had to do so within a limited budget. Three approaches worked particularly well:
- We contacted local authorities in small towns for permission to set up in shopping streets or outdoor markets during school holidays and attracted interest from both young people and their parents.
- We were welcomed by libraries, which in some areas were the main source of internet access.
- We were offered empty shops on high streets free or very cheaply and used these for weekly (market day!) drop-in coffee and chat venues, using careers advisers for brief one-to-one sessions and outreach staff from universities and FE colleges in the region to offer information in an informal setting, with student and parent ambassadors also on hand for a chat.
Although the numbers logged as attending were nowhere near as high as events based in school or university and the ratio of staff to the public was higher, the personalised face to face discussion was invaluable. Evaluation was problematic – we didn’t want to disrupt the sessions with requirements for registration or form- filling – but once people were engaged with us we were able to capture some data. This showed an increase in registered interest and subsequent engagement directly with the universities and colleges, particularly from adults but also from young people who reported that they would not have attended more formal events
There has been a positive move in recent years towards universities renewing and promoting their civic role, contributing to regional policy and priorities, and positioning themselves to assist economic regeneration in conjunction with employers via research, course focus and graduate apprenticeships. There are some good examples of services being offered to the public including opening some facilities and premises for wider use. These actions improve external perceptions of the university as a place for everyone, and working within communities to engage with young people and adults fits well with this broad approach. Looking to the future it is by no means clear whether prospective students will behave in the same way as before. A community presence gives an ongoing indication of priorities in different areas and enhances the perception and reputation of higher education, contributing to widening access and participation whatever form that may take in the post-pandemic world.