Access and participation in Higher Education

Higher education providers across England are currently developing Access and Participation Plans (APPs) as required by the Office for Students to set out actions and targets to improve equality of opportunity for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As the 2024 deadlines for APP submission near, universities are reflecting on evaluation approaches to demonstrate impact.

Evaluators from the Centre for Teaching and Learning recently attended three events at Oxford, Cambridge, and Birmingham and noted how these events positioned evaluation as an opportunity for participatory inquiry and culture change. Across all three events, practitioners agreed on prioritising participatory and mixed evaluation methods, examining assumptions and mobilising leadership support to build confidence in addressing barriers to inclusion. The following is a short summary of each event, including key takeaways.

This year promises increasing momentum for evaluating and enhancing APPs holistically to realise more accessible, supportive environments empowering every learner’s potential.

For more information, please visit Diversity of Student Experience Project or contact us.

Evaluating the impact of diverse students’ experiences on their learning at Oxford

6 October 2023, St John’s College, University of Oxford

This knowledge exchange forum was organised by the Centre for Teaching and Learning, featuring various presentations by staff and students from across the University on improving the student experience, including the:

Key takeaways include adopting participatory approaches to involve students as partners, compensating them for research participation and disseminating findings to promote inclusion. Presentations also highlighted the need for academic skills development, closing admissions gaps, understanding mental health trends, and digital needs.

Students directly contributed perspectives on libraries, discomfort in higher education, and personal journeys overcoming various barriers. Overall, the event facilitated sharing knowledge on enhancing belonging, achievement, and wellbeing across the student lifecycle.

Evaluating Access and Participation Plans

13 October 2023, Student Services Centre, University of Cambridge

This forum, organised by the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning, featured keynote speakers Professor Liz Austen (Sheffield Hallam University), Dr Paul Ian Campbell (University of Leicester), and Dr Sally Andrews (Staffordshire University).

One theme that emerged is the need to move beyond performative evaluation focused on regulatory compliance, instead using evaluation as an opportunity for inclusive, participatory inquiry that builds institutional culture change. Critical engagement around appropriate methodologies and evidence types is encouraged rather than an overemphasis on positivistic data. Centring student and staff voices as co-creators, considering unintended outcomes, and embedding sustained action are also vital for crafting meaningful plans targeting genuine reductions in equity and awarding gaps over the long term.

What are the 'wicked evaluation issues in higher education?

3 November 2023, The Studio, Birmingham

This networking event, organised by the Evaluation Collective marked the launching of a digital Zine, one of the outputs from the QAA Collaborative Enhancement Project led by Sheffield Hallam University.

The event was attended by 50 evaluators from across the UK higher education sector and TASO, and focused on tackling the following ‘wicked problems’ in evaluating university equity interventions:

The collaborative discussion aimed to build confidence among higher education practitioners through a creative, accessible publication sharing relatable evaluation struggles and potential solutions like contribution analysis and co-created assessment.

Key takeaways include utilising mixed methods, surfacing assumptions in Theories of Change, mobilising leadership support, and continuing to push for cultural change around inclusive, authentic evaluation versus performative exercises.