What should you invest in?

We are not prescriptive about the detail of your plans to sustain and improve access, success and progression. It is for you to determine the detail of your access agreement because you are best placed to understand your circumstances and match your approach to your targets.

Our broad guidance is that, where possible, most of your expenditure should be on activities that have already been shown to work well in raising aspiration and attainment. We encourage you to share good practice wherever you find it, using your regional and national networks, and we also welcome efforts to try new approaches where effective evaluation and monitoring are built in from the start.

However, we do expect to see a strategic, evidence-led approach to your investment plans. Your plans should be based on your assessment of your institutional performance, strategic priorities, progress towards targets and evaluation of outcomes, therefore demonstrating how you plan to tackle the gaps in your performance. For example:

You should use a combination of measures that will not only have a short-term, direct bearing on your own access or student success performance, but will also help to widen participation to higher education as a whole in the longer term. As with all business objectives, effective access plans require long and short-term aims, and we expect all institutions to maintain their expenditure on broader WP work, including collaborative access work.

Guidance on disaggregating access, student success and progression expenditure

Demonstrate evidence and evaluation

We expect your plans to demonstrate how you have responded to the results of your evaluation work, e.g. by expanding successful programmes, or refining or discontinuing unsuccessful programmes.

For your key access measures, especially where you are spending large sums, you should either have existing evidence of success, or you must ensure you evaluate any new initiative from the outset. We leave it to you to determine what is reasonable and proportionate to ensure good value for money.

Balance of investment between access, student success and progression activities and financial support

All institutions will need to use available evidence, including previous evaluation measures, in deciding the balance of expenditure between access, student success and progression activity, and financial support.

You should ensure that the balance of spend you allocate through your access agreement reflects your performance across the student lifecycle and is oriented towards achieving the outcome targets you have set yourself. For example, where your assessment of your performance indicates that you are very successful at recruiting students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups but your student success or progression rates for these students are relatively low, we expect you to invest appropriately to address this.

Where your balance of spend does not appear to reflect your performance, or your rationale and supporting evidence have not been adequately explained in your access agreement, we will want to discuss this with you, to understand better the evidence you have used to support your decisions.

Research has shown that financial support did not have a significant impact on students’ choices of institution, or on retention rates, under the pre-2012 system of fees and student support. We therefore encourage you to increase your access, student success and progression activity where appropriate, particularly if your progress is less than you set out to achieve in your previous access agreement.

If you have your own evidence on the impact of financial support, you should use it when making decisions on your support packages and include details of this in your access agreement.

If you are investing significant resource in financial support, we will expect you to provide a clear rationale in your access agreement of how your approach will help to improve access, student success and progression for under-represented groups, providing evidence where appropriate.

OFFA has recently published research into the evaluation of financial support which provides a toolkit you can use to evaluate your financial support provision.

Where you do not have evidence to support your investment in financial support, we would like you to consider whether this expenditure could be more effectively invested in other areas of your access agreement.

What specialist institutions and higher tariff universities will need to consider

UCAS data indicates that there has been significant progress in 18 year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher tariff universities – they were 39 per cent more likely to do so in the 2015 cycle than in 2011. Despite this progress, only 3.3 per cent of students from the least advantaged backgrounds enter higher tariff institutions – compared to 20.7 per cent from the most advantaged backgrounds. Higher tariff institutions should consider how best to significantly scale up activity, and increase coverage to strive both for quicker and sustained change.

We published our strategic plan for 2015-2020 in February 2015. This sets out our aims, including to make faster progress in improving access to the most selective higher education institutions by students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups. Our target is for the 18 year-old entry rate from quintile 1 to increase from 3.2 per cent in 2014-15 to 5 per cent by 2019-20; for the entry rate from quintile 2 to increase from 5.1 per cent in 2014-15 to 7 per cent by 2019-20 for quintile 2; and to reduce the gap in participation between quintiles 5 and 1 (our target is for the quintile 5: quintile 1 ratio to decrease from 6.8 in 2014-15 to 5.0 by 2019-20).

We expect higher tariff institutions and specialist institutions with very low proportions of under-represented groups to focus greater resources on increasing applications to their institutions from under-represented groups. This is in addition to maintaining your expenditure on broader WP work.

In considering whether to change your access work, higher tariff institutions should refer to the recommendations in OFFA publication 2010/03, What more can be done to widen access to highly selective universities? The report encourages higher tariff institutions to increase the volume and coverage of successful extended access programmes, including intensive activities such as summer schools targeted at the most able students from under-represented groups.

The report also suggested that higher tariff institutions should carry out broad widening participation work with younger age groups and then concentrate on access activities and programmes that raise aspirations and increase applications to higher tariff institutions by early in year 9. This is before young people make decisions about their GCSEs and is therefore a crucial period: subject choices at this stage can significantly close down, or open up, options at A level (or equivalent) and subsequent eligibility for selective higher education courses and institutions.

To make appropriate choices, pupils rely in part on what subjects are available to them and in part on the quality of information, advice and guidance offered to them, often long before they apply to university. Access work with a focus on sciences, maths or modern languages can therefore help to increase attainment and applications to highly competitive courses.

Related guidance

Setting your access agreement strategy

What we will count as access agreement expenditure

Choosing your access activities

Student success and progression

How much should you invest?


Page last updated: 9 February 2017