The Office for Fair Access closed at the end of 31 March 2018 and responsibility for higher education access regulation transferred to the Office for Students

Understanding the impact of OFFA’s approach to evidence and effective practice

Outcomes

This project concluded in March 2018 and we have published the impact evaluation of the work of the evidence and effective practice function at OFFA. It demonstrates that:

We have also published a summary of this research for those working in higher education policy, and one for staff in higher education institutions or third sector organisations working on access and participation.

Why did we do this?

Our 2015-2020 Strategic Plan called for universities and colleges to take an increasingly evidence-led approach to improving performance on access and participation across the whole student lifecycle, right through to the transition to work or further study.

Alongside this challenge to institutions, we have also been developing a more evidence-led approach to our own policy and practice. This impact review forms part of our commitment to more intelligent regulation, and was intended to:

What did we do?

We issued an invitation to tender in early September 2017, and at the end of the same month, commissioned Nursaw Associates to carry out an impact review of how far the activities of our Evidence and Effective Practice function have successfully met the objectives of our Evidence Strategy.

Since then Nursaw Associates has:

What did we find?

Support and challenge

In the minds of people working at institutions, there is significant interdependence between OFFA’s evidence and effective practice work and its regulatory function, with 81 per cent of survey respondents considering that OFFA’s role should be to both regulate higher education and support the sector in its efforts to widen participation. 

The value of research to institutions

Survey and interview responses highlighted that OFFA’s research and evaluation work is valued by institutions in terms of:

Widening participation staff felt that OFFA enabled them to influence leaders to understand the importance of their work, and would like OFFA to be more visible in the practitioner community, for example via targeted events and direct communications. For example, over 57 per cent of institutions from the access agreement analysis use the financial support toolkit developed through our research to understand the impact of financial support.

Relationship building

Eighty-eight per cent of survey respondents described having a close working relationship with OFFA, which was seen as positive and important for effective regulation. Interviewees from further education colleges (FECs) reported feeling more distant from OFFA, explaining that they do not consider a close relationship with OFFA to be necessary, but would like opportunities to share and discuss best practice with other FECs.

A sea change

Interviewees reported that OFFA has had a positive impact on the sector, with one describing OFFA creating a ‘sea change’. This is borne out by access agreement analysis which demonstrates a significant increase in evaluative activity within institutions: only 10 per cent of access agreements in 2013-14 mentioned an evaluation framework, but this had risen to 57 per cent in 2018-19.

However, interviewees widely acknowledged that evidence and evaluation are not yet embedded into the work of the sector and require further support and intervention from the regulator. Many did not believe that the evaluative work would continue at the same level without the commitment and support from OFFA.

Consultation and collaboration

Individuals and institutions described being part of working groups or consultative forums with OFFA as ‘a very positive experience’.  Interviewees wished to be consulted more in terms of the subjects for future topic briefings or areas of research.

Recommendations

This review has provided valuable learning for OFFA as the current fair access regulator, which we hope will be developed by the Office for Students (OfS) as the incoming regulator, so that:

In order to work with higher education providers in the most effective ways, we also encourage the OfS to:

As a result of this research, we also recommend that higher education providers:

Want more information?

Contact Richard Shiner, Head of Evidence and Effective Practice (0117 931 7467, richard.shiner@offa.org.uk).