Uni Connect future and impact with new APPs guidance

Blog by: V. Spink, HeppSY Programme Manager
Image by: Greg Rakozy

Impact of new APPs guidance and the future of Uni Connect – divide and conquer or collaboration opportunity?

As we reach the end of the fifth year of Uni Connect, the Office for Students (OfS) funded national outreach programme, it’s interesting to see how far we have come and where we’re heading over the next 2 years. Having reached over 1 million young people so far, it’s exaggeration to say Uni Connect partnerships (UCPs) and their partner universities and colleges are a driving force for access to higher education by ensuring young people have access to impartial information and advice. We’ve seen a name change (from NCOP to Uni Connect), four Prime Ministers, eight Secretaries for Education, a new Director of Fair Access and most recently a reform to Access and Participation Plans (APP). There’s been a whole bunch of change which now feels more consistent than the change itself. The question remains, what can we expect for the next 2 years and beyond?

Universities are now expected to work more strategically with schools and colleges to better support progression and enable attainment raising. This has given the opportunity for both universities and Uni Connect partnerships to consider how they best work together now and beyond July 2025. The OfS have expressed indicative support for the Uni Connect programme to be funded until summer 2025.

We know as a programme, Uni Connect has supported over 1 million learners and made a positive impact by increasing the proportion of Key Stage 4 learners who live in target areas applying to higher education between 2018 and 2021. Uni Connect and APPs exist to challenge providers to be more ambitious and evidence-based in their outreach and support activities, with Uni Connect being a vehicle for providers to do so.

At HeppSY we have been reviewing the work we undertake to cover our 4 key priorities: targeted outreach, strategic outreach, signposting, and attainment raising. It has given us a space to take our work to the next level by working collaboratively on APP plans and strategic objectives and challenge the work that we know is already meaningful. For most Uni Connect Partnerships (UCPs) it is about finding the balance when working with university partners between institution priorities and Uni Connect priorities. It is particularly important with institutions making the decision about which wave they will put themselves forward for. We’ve worked closely with our partners to find a sweet spot for attainment raising by bringing together expertise from Sheffield Hallam University and University of Sheffield to shape our plans for September 2023. Speaking from our experience at HeppSY, attainment raising will be a whole new area for us so we’re undertaking lots of work to investigate our current activities to test whether these have any impact on positive grade increases in their current form. This has enabled us to develop new programmes which we’ll be piloting from September 2023.

The reforms to APPs has brought with it increased stress on evaluation which has been a welcome addition to see. A push for the whole sector to ensure programmes are robust is vital and is an opportunity to not only share the positive impact but also learn where the intended outcome and impact wasn’t achieved and why. However as rightly articulated by Rachel Carr, Chief Executive and co-founder of IntoUniversity, we can’t lose sight of widening participation programmes working with young people who have varying needs and complexities in their lives. We can’t over simplify evaluation as we will lose all important nuance.

We must look to the future for an exit strategy for Uni Connect (assuming there is no further funding, which in my opinion would be really difficult to sustain) as we could be in real danger of facing a cliff edge of this impactful and important work. So how can we prevent this from happening?

There’s great potential to ensure we’re supporting collaborative projects to have longevity in a world of annual funding. I would encourage both universities and Uni Connect partnerships to continue to be open minded about joint initiatives. However, and most importantly, we can all support the future of access and participation by understanding and contributing to the new consultation the OfS is currently seeking tender for. There are some difficult questions to address but I am pleased to see an independent review taking place which can reflect on the investment and support future decision making. Without this I fear we may fall into a trap of previous government funded outreach programmes whereby years of hard work and impact is lost without lessons learned.

We know whatever happens in two years, the need for this work isn’t going to disappear as even more young people are expected to be entering the higher education system, highlighted in the UCAS national debate Journey to a Million. As a sector, Uni Connect and teams carrying out APP work, need to continue working together in an uncompetitive, open, and honest space to ensure robust and learner centred support is provided.


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