Pioneering the Path: Submitting new Access and Participation Plans to the Office for Students (OfS) as part of the Wave One cohort

This year, around forty higher education institutions were part of the wave one cohort to submit updated access and participation plans (APPs) to the Office for Students (OfS). This has been a demanding yet transformative experience for all involved. The publication of fresh OfS regulations and guidance presented us with challenges and opportunities. In this article, Dan West, Policy and Research Lead at the University of Derby, explores the journey of pioneering this new era in access and participation and the invaluable supporting role played by the Forum for Access and Continuing Education APP Special Interest Group (FACE-SIG).

Navigating the unknown

As the first institutions tasked with submitting new APPs, our journey began with an air of excitement and apprehension, and a dose of trepidation. A set of draft OfS guidance materials dropped into our collective inboxes in May 2023 (roughly 6-8 weeks before our submission deadlines) for feedback prior to publication. The guidance laid out existing sector wide priorities (which we were already familiar with from the 2022 variations exercise), the prescribed contents of the new APP, and the critical importance of evaluation: generating a robust body of evidence of the impact of access and participation activities.

The FACE APP Network Group: A Beacon of Support

Amidst this challenge, the FACE-SIG emerged as an invaluable ally. This community of policy experts and practitioners became a beacon of support, offering a platform where colleagues could engage in candid discussions, share experiences, and pool our collective expertise. FACE provided spaces for us (regular Microsoft Teams ‘huddles’ and a WhatsApp chat group) to discuss our interpretations of the OfS guidance, exchange ideas, and derive inspiration from each other’s innovative approaches. It was a real game changer in how institutions work in partnership to support the development of their APPs.

Interpreting and adapting to the new guidelines

The discussions within the FACE-SIG enabled us to delve deep into the nuances of the OfS’ guidance and expectations. The diverse perspectives within the group allowed us to critically analyse the implications and intricacies of the guidance, ensuring that we interpreted it accurately. This shared understanding empowered us to adapt our strategies and actions to align with the fresh expectations, all while adhering to our institutional values and missions.

“As a small and specialist institution, being part of the SIG was incredibly useful for me to discuss with colleagues the challenges we were all facing, even if they were from a completely different type of institution. I learnt so much from talking through approaches, whether that resulted in realising we were going down the completely wrong path or confirming that our approach made sense in our own context.”

Morag Duffin, Head of Access and Student Success at the University of Law.

A risky business

Tasked with producing a credible assessment of performance, colleagues delved into the OfS APP dataset and other sources. This was by no means a straightforward task, especially for small institutions with low student numbers and limited data analysis capabilities. The final analyses served to illuminate the key risks to equality of opportunity within our institutions. The newly introduced OfS Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, sharing sector wide risks, was also consulted to inform these individual assessments. We then got busy crafting a set of core APP objectives to tackle our identified key risks to equality of opportunity.

Developing new intervention strategies

One of the most exciting aspects of being part of the first cohort was the opportunity to develop new intervention strategies to drive our access and participation objectives; setting out a thoughtful blend of evidence-informed and data-driven activities alongside robust evaluation plans to facilitate the continuous measurement and improvement. The discussions and collaborations held within the FACE-SIG were instrumental in sparking creativity. We explored various interventions, leveraged successful practices, and customised solutions to meet the unique needs of our respective student populations.

Crafting robust evaluation plans

While crafting new intervention strategies was essential, it was equally vital to develop robust evaluation plans to track the impact of our activities. The FACE-SIG offered a platform for us to share ideas on how to measure the impact of our interventions effectively. We discussed data collection, institutional evaluation frameworks, and methodologies, ensuring that our efforts would be grounded in evidence and responsive to student needs.

Navigating the OfS assessment process

With our access and participation plans safely locked in the OfS extranet portal, we ventured out into the OfS assessment process, feeling anxious, but well-prepared and supported by the collective wisdom of the group. The guidance and insights shared by colleagues were invaluable in helping us to both anticipate and address the queries raised by the OfS throughout the assessment process. It was interesting to observe the emergence of common themes, and a great deal of reinventing the wheel was saved!

A pioneering spirit

As we reflect on our journey as part of the first cohort to submit updated access and participation plans, one thing is abundantly clear: the pioneering spirit that has characterised this experience is a testament to our unwavering commitment to equality of opportunity in higher education. Collaboration through the FACE-SIG has been instrumental in not only meeting the OfS’ expectations but also pushing the boundaries of innovation in access and participation initiatives.

In conclusion, being part of the first cohort has been a remarkable journey of adaptation, innovation, and collaboration. As we now receive the outcomes of our submissions, we do so with confidence, knowing that we have embraced the challenges of this new era in access and participation, thanks to the support and camaraderie offered by the FACE-SIG. Our collective efforts underscore the resilience and dedication of higher education institutions in their mission to open doors and provide opportunities for all.

Blog By: Dan West, University of Derby

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