New Access and Participation Plans: How can we take advantage of the time we have?

As the dust settles on the mass variation process for Access and Participation Plans (APPs) our collective minds across the sector are beginning to focus on what’s next. We know when John Blake announced the variation process that we’d need to rewrite our APPs in 2023 and we’re beginning to get a bit more information from the Office for Students (OfS) about the timeframes for this. Whatever the timescales are, if they are anything like the timescales for the variation process, we’re not going to have long to consult, develop and write a four-year APP. At Bath we’ve begun to run some scenarios given the potential deadlines. Whichever way we look at it we have a matter of weeks from when the guidance is given from the OfS to when the plan needs to start its journey through the governance process. I think we all accept that universities aren’t the fastest place to get things approved, but there is a structure and if we want to ensure that APPs are embedded within that structure, we must engage with it. So, what does all this mean? I think it means we have 2 options:
  1. We wait until the guidance is published then have a small group of people locked away in a dark room who solely focus on writing the APP, they take all the decisions and present the plan as complete to the various boards and committees as a ‘tick-box’ exercise. This could be quite appealing, a small group is much easier to make decisions with and it’ll get done, but it won’t allow people across the university community to feel like they are part of the APP. I think many of us have taken this approach in the past, and it hasn’t led to everyone feeling like they have a part to play – it becomes one person/group’s agenda, and everyone associates the APP with them.
  2. The alternative. We use whatever information we have from OfS, and we fully engage the university community so that everyone gets to have their say, what’s worked well, what’s not worked so well, what should we do next, what challenges do we need to address? This is not the easy option and it’s not risk free; the likelihood is that we must begin these conversations at a time when the OfS haven’t fully decided their approach to the new APPs. They could change their approach and all those conversations are ‘wasted’.
At Bath we’re planning to go for the riskier but maybe bigger reward of engaging the university community before the guidance is fully published. We’re planning a stakeholder list and then how we will engage each of the different groups. We’re hoping to begin this in the new academic year when we hope we will have some indications from OfS about their direction. It’s unlikely to be a one session fits all model, we’re going to have spend a few months giving information, running sessions, presenting at committees and boards. It certainly won’t be simple and its going to be a busy time. Our intention will be to get as much insight from the community as possible and then combined with updated analysis of our most recent datasets draw some general direction for APP work. Hopefully we’ll have something in the new year, which once guidance is released, we’ll be able to pick and choose the elements we need to include in the template to meet the requirements of OfS. That bit is likely to be the small group in a dark room for a few weeks – but this time they’ll have all the engagement and insight from the community to draw on. When it does then go through governance processes, the boards and committees will understand where the content/strategic direction has come from, and it will hopefully be a smoother passage through the boards to approval. I’m aware at Bath we’re lucky to have a team of people focused on APP work and that may not be the case at all institutions. I think that’s where groups like the APP Special Interest Group at FACE come in. We as a community of APP leads come together to support each other and have those conversations that very people in our own institutions can have. Didn’t someone once say no risk no reward… I hope I don’t come to regret it!

Dr Andrew Ross is Head of Widening Access and Participation at the University of Bath.

As Head of Widening Access and Participation at the University of Bath, Andrew manages the strategic direction of the Access Team to engage under-represented students with university. He also works across the University to coordinate and support on-course activity supporting APP targets. Originally from a deprived area of Derby, Andrew was the first in his family to go to university; he went on to complete a degree and PhD in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. Andrew has a passion for helping disadvantaged students achieve their goals and in early 2013 he joined the world of Widening Participation. He has delivered many different projects in several roles at Bath through that time. Andrew is well known around the local area for his exciting liquid nitrogen shows and for his Guinness World Record for the fastest time to make ice cream.

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