Lifelong learning…an alternative student?

The advice monsters

Nowadays the concept of a traditional student is changing, slowly. While the majority of students entering higher education are 18-19 in their first year and progressing straight from school, they come from more diverse backgrounds and may now have a different university experience, perhaps commuting to study or only living part-time on campus. However, in this blog, I am looking at a truly alternative student. QAA has held responsibilities related to Access to HE qualifications since the organisation was established in 1997, responsibility having been transferred from one of its predecessor organisations, the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC).
The specific expectations of the then Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) were detailed in a letter from the Secretary of State in 1996 about the responsibilities of the new agency (‘advice on access courses under the national arrangements for Access Course Recognition operated by HEQC’). These expectations are reflected in QAA’s Memorandum of Association, naming among the objects of the Company: ‘the provision of advice to government, as requested, on access course recognition…’ Throughout our 25 year management of the qualification it has not remained static. The qualification and its regulation have evolved. Some changes have been informed by good practice within the sector and the need to ensure the qualification remains a respected and robust Level 3 progression qualification, others were introduced as the result of research undertaken at the request of Government[1]. The research project completed in 2004 and a report published[2]; this included seven major recommendations. In its response to the recommendations, DfES asked QAA to take work forward in several areas and a development project was established. Lifelong learning applies to qualifications too.
In 1997, very little was known about the qualification. It was awarded by over 30 awarding bodies and was locally developed; oversight of quality and standards was achieved through QAA’s licensing of Access Validating Agencies[3] (AVAs) on a five-year cycle. In order to understand better the students studying the qualification a national dataset was established to support our Access to HE activities. Working with colleagues in HESA and UCAS, we developed and introduced annual statistical reports based on data derived from our AVAs and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and supplemented with progression data from UCAS and HESA. This data set has evolved over the years but continues to help us to provide advice to Government on QAA-recognised Access to HE courses and to understand changes in student cohorts.
Since the dataset was established, over 934,000 Access to HE student registrations have been recorded and over 375,000 students have entered HE, most of them go on to study degree programmes designed for progression into areas of key skills needs across the UK such as nursing. Over the last four years we have seen an increase in the proportion of Access to HE students registered on courses aligned to the subject sector area of Health, Public Services and Care (see image 1).
The Access to HE Diploma Specification with its national credit volume as well as a national grading scheme were implemented fully between 2008 and 2009, following a period of development and consultation involving key qualification stakeholders. These two developments aligned to recommendations 5[4] and 6[5] of the research report. The developments have supported students and HE admissions staff and facilitated acceptance of the Access Diploma onto the UCAS Tariff from 2017 entry. Since the graded Diploma was formally introduced in 2009-10, over 240,000 Access to HE students have entered higher education[6]. Progression statistics should be seen in the light of the unique aspects of the Access to HE Diploma. It is the only Level 3 qualification designed specifically for adults with a flexible curriculum that can adapt and respond quickly to local needs, as well as national needs. The qualification also attracts a different student demographic. Access to HE students tend to be aged 25 and older, are more likely to identify as female, and come from an ethnic minority than other students entering higher education with other Level 3 qualifications. Our Key Statistics and Real Stories demonstrate how the Diploma continues to support widening participation in higher education.
The 2003 White Paper which initiated QAA’s research project asked “…QAA, which regulates the national recognition of Access courses, to come forward with proposals to modernise the criteria for Access Courses to make them sufficiently flexible and attractive to meet the needs of adult learners.” While its content was, and remains, developed to meet local needs delivery was quite static. Face to face teaching over one academic year became the norm and, because of funding and other challenges outside of our remit, part-time offerings decreased. There had been a steady increase in provision at private training providers since 2012 but the Diploma was mainly delivered with students in the same physical space in one academic year. However we have seen significant changes to pattern of delivery since 2018. While the majority of courses are taught over one academic year, the number of students studying over one year that straddles the academic year has increased, along with the proportion of students choosing to study on a roll-on / roll-off basis. Around a third of all Access to HE students are now registered to complete in more than one academic year. Many more students now study totally online or through hybrid or blended provision. Student needs have changed and course providers are responding to these needs. We are all learning. This change in delivery has been accelerated by the global pandemic. Who would have a thought a virus would change the shape of education provision overnight? We have all had to develop new ways of working and many of these, including some of the best bits, have incorporated into our current working practices. The Diploma’s flexibility came to the fore throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet despite affording greater flexibility for delivery, content and assessment under our Extraordinary Regulatory Frameworks, we saw little change in the overall grade profile for Access to HE Diplomas awarded nationally. The proportion of Distinction grades as a percentage of all graded credit awarded 2021-22 is four percentage points higher than those awarded in 2018-19. The proportion of students achieving an all Distinction profile is just 2.5 percentage points higher than for 2018-19. This stable grade profile demonstrates that, under QAA’s guidance, AVAs and providers implement robust quality assurance mechanisms, ensuring consistency is applied across all Access to HE Diplomas. These robust quality assurance activities support the flexibility of course design afforded under the Diploma Specification. This qualification was resilient throughout the pandemic, as were the teachers that delivered the Diploma, students that studied the Diploma and AVAs that awarded the Diploma.
We recognise that moving forward opportunities for lifelong learning will become more important as adults are likely to have to reskill or upskill to find work. This means course providers and awarding bodies will need to evaluate their offer in response to these needs. We believe the flexibility afforded through the Access to HE Diploma puts it in a good position to support these needs and to address the changes to policy and the qualification landscape. However, we cannot rest on our laurels. Elements of the QAA Recognition Scheme are reviewed periodically and we are currently undertaking a review of the Access to HE Recognition scheme. The key priorities for QAA in this review are to ensure the sustainability and protection of QAA-recognised Access to HE Diplomas while retaining robust quality assurance mechanisms and flexibility in curriculum design. Amendments to the grading scheme are being developed and we are currently consulting on proposals on changes to the Access to HE Diploma Specification. More information is available from the news section of our website. Lifelong learning applies to us all. And we shall continue to learn so we can make the Access to HE Diploma the best it can be so it can continue to transform the lives of the students who study it.


[1] White Paper, The Future of Higher Education asked QAA to ‘come forward with proposals to modernise the criteria for Access Courses so that they are sufficiently flexible and attractive to meet the needs of today’s adult learners’.

[2] Access to HE Development Project May 2004

[3] In 1997 AVAs were known as Authorised Validating Agencies

[4] Recommendation 5 The standards required to achieve the Access qualification should be clear, common and consistently applied; should be able to accommodate diversity of programmes; and should recognise student achievement within a common national framework

[5] Recommendation 6 The method of description of achievement on Access programmes should be standardised, so that equivalence is demonstrable and transparent. There should be common criteria and mechanisms to allow partial achievement to be acknowledged and transferred; and to ensure that differential individual achievement, in terms of both volume and level, can be recognised.

[6] This figure may include students who achieved a legacy qualification, for example Access to HE Certificate

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