Setting your access agreement strategy
Each year we publish strategic guidance which sets out our key priorities for access agreements in that year and any changes from previous years. As well as those annual priorities, there are overarching approaches and ways of working that we consider to be good practice in every strategy for access, student success and progression, and fundamental to achieving the further, faster progress that we are looking for universities and colleges to make (as described in our strategic plan). We therefore look for all access agreements to demonstrate a strategic approach.
A strategic approach
When writing your access agreement, you should make it clear how the different elements of your access agreement link together strategically. For example, a key part of an access agreement is the initial assessment of an institution’s performance across the student lifecycle, including an assessment of your performance in access, student success and progression. It is essential that this assessment is clearly evidenced, including evidence from your own monitoring and evaluation, and that the priorities identified in this assessment are reflected in your access agreement plans and targets.
- Assess your performance across the whole student lifecycle and use this to identify gaps in performance and areas for improvement.
- The assessment should inform your access, student success and progression strategy, and should be revised annually to reflect the lessons learned from previous years.
- Choose access, student success and progression activities that clearly target the areas you have identified as being in need of improvement and create a resource budget which includes the full costs of delivery of your access, student success and progression activities
- Set targets and milestones that will allow you to demonstrate the progress you have made, particularly in your key areas of improvement.
- Monitor and evaluate your plans and use this information in the assessment of your performance when writing your next access agreement.
When assessing an agreement, we focus on the outcomes of your access agreement activity, and whether you have set out convincing plans that will enable you to meet the targets and milestones you have set. So, rather than simply telling us about your financial inputs, or the number and scale of your programmes, we want to see evidence of how your access agreement work is improving fair access – both at your institution and to the higher education sector as a whole. There is a collective benefit in widening participation across the sector, and all types of institution, including higher tariff universities, benefit from broader widening participation work).
At the end of each academic year for which you have an access agreement we will ask you to report on the progress you have made against your targets, including an explanatory commentary, in our annual monitoring process.
Smart, evidence-based expenditure
You should base your decisions on access agreement expenditure on appropriate levels of evaluation of your access activities and other institutions’ evidence of what works best. This will enable you to spend smartly and prioritise activities that will have the greatest impact on the areas where you most require improvement.
This applies both to:
- the balance of expenditure between access, student success and progression activity, and financial support
- the balance of activity between that aiming to improve access and that aiming to retain students and support them to achieve to their full potential and prepare for employment or further study.
Where possible, you should demonstrate the evidence you have used to determine your balance of investment. If your balance of spend does not appear to reflect your performance, or has not been explained in your access agreement, we will want to discuss this with you before the Director can approve your agreement.
The national strategy for access and student success emphasises that to maximise impact and effectiveness, it is essential that you take a broad view of widening participation encompassing a student’s entire lifecycle. People from disadvantaged backgrounds should be supported not only to aspire to, prepare for and access higher education, but also through their course and in preparing to progress to employment or further study.
Research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has shown disparities in outcomes for some groups of students including those from minority ethnic groups, students from disadvantaged areas and disabled students. When developing your access agreement you should consider any unexplained differences in outcomes for different groups of students at your institution and tell us about your plans to address these differences.
71 per cent of institutions have targets set around progression. You should consider how you will support disadvantaged students across the whole of the student lifecycle, including as students prepare to progress to employment or postgraduate study.
OFFA’s remit only covers students and courses that are fee-regulated, therefore you should not count expenditure to support under-represented students on postgraduate courses as part of your access agreement spend.
However, we recognise that more work needs to be done to address under-representation of certain groups of students in postgraduate study, and so would be interested to hear about the work you are doing in this area.
There are many benefits to collaboration including increased engagement with students and potential applicants, better coordination of work, economies of scale and reduced duplication. Working collaboratively and coordinating activities can help to create a better geographical spread, and helps to target areas where little widening participation activity takes place.
Where you have collaborative activity, we expect you to explore and develop collaborative evaluation and targets that allow you to demonstrate the effectiveness of your activity, including where these mainly contribute to improving participation to the sector as a whole, as well as those directly relating to your institution.
We encourage all institutions to build on and strengthen collaborative arrangements where beneficial and appropriate. You should set out in your access agreement how you intend to build your collaborative approaches. This might include continuing or strengthening the work of already established networks, such as NNCOs, NCOPs, or Aim Higher partnerships.
We will expect institutions to have evaluated the effectiveness of their collaborative work when determining how to maximise the value for money of their investment in these networks.
In your annual monitoring return to OFFA you are asked to report your progress against your targets. When assessing your progress in achieving these targets, we will always take your collaborative efforts into account.
A whole-institution approach
We encourage you to ensure that the development of your access agreement, and your longer-term access, student success and progression plans, is a whole-institution process, with your core priorities for access, student success and progression embedded at all levels across your institution.
We expect your access agreement to provide an overview of how you have integrated strategies across your institution, for example linking up teaching and learning with student success, or aligning your access work with your application and student recruitment policies.
Related guidance and resources