A toolkit to encourage more ambitious access agreements

Barriers to adult learners include a fear of the cost and perceptions that universities are too inflexible.
Universities can do much more to target resources at widening the participation of adult learners, a research report funded and published by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) suggests. Dr John Butcher of the Open University outlines some ways universities are attracting adult learners and introduces a toolkit developed by OFFA that can encourage more of these initiatives.

The potential disappearance of adult learners from English higher education offers a depressingly dramatic scenario. HESA report a 61% decline in the numbers of mature part-time and full-time learners in HE since 2010.

Given that adult learners are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged or under-represented groups, this should be deeply worrying for university leaders committed to widening participation, as well as to any government espousing social mobility.

Discussions with adult learners reveal no lack of aspiration – rather barriers include a fear of the cost, risk-aversion around debt, a perception that many universities are too inflexible, allied to a lack of confidence around their own ability.

The sector infatuation with outreach in schools

Millions are spent annually by universities on outreach activities aimed at school pupils. It has been difficult to find robust evaluative evidence that this money is spent efficiently or effectively. Coming just as England enters a period when the 18 year-old population is dropping – and not expected to recover until 2024, a myopic focus on a single approach to outreach is likely to exclude many potential learners who currently lack fair access to HE.

What can be done?

I was principal investigator on a collaborative project which used five institutional case studies to illustrate the varied ways in which different universities were seeking to attract adults into HE and to support them to achieve.

  • The Open University designed a Science, Technology and Maths (STEM) Access module to better prepare adult learners to progress to their first undergraduate science module. Evidence indicated learner confidence and studentship skills had been enhanced, and that, crucially for STEM, it was competence in maths skills delivered through interdisciplinary study which enabled subsequent success.
  • Bristol University use community-based outreach with adults lacking conventional qualifications. Learners progress to a full-time Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities and subsequently on to Bristol’s undergraduate programme.
  • Birkbeck, University of London have offered a Higher Education Introductory Studies course for years, as a pathway into their undergraduate degree in Social Sciences. Longitudinal data demonstrates positive progression, but numbers have dropped and student demographic has shifted since fees rose.
  • Leeds University sustains a Lifelong Learning Centre which targets outreach activities in low participation neighbourhoods. Data demonstrates the importance of better information advice and guidance to counter the randomness of progression opportunities for adults, and the value of peer support from adults from similar backgrounds.
  • The Open University produced new free online resources aimed at adult learners (PEARL website) featuring an ‘Advise me’ interactive tool, and six free online courses for those seeking employment progression.

The three-step evaluation tool

In order to stimulate outreach activities with disadvantaged adult learners, and drawing on the five case studies, we produced an evaluation matrix of three iterative steps:

  1. Institutional culture: a ‘health check’ as a fundamental starting point to demonstrate the extent to which a university has a ‘climate’ likely to enable adult learners to thrive.
  2. Institutional intelligence: a reflective tool to prompt strategic consideration of the appropriateness of specific interventions for adult learners.
  3. Personalised understanding of impact: a framework to explore learner transformation by capturing ‘learning gain’ from individual adult learners in areas like study confidence and engagement – a more personal metric than traditional recruitment data.

Following the three steps enables university leaders to critically reflect (using a 1-4 scale) to establish where outreach resources could most effectively be targeted.

This toolkit was trialled in an OU/OFFA workshop at Universities UK in July, and individual institutions present committed to using it as part of their strategic decision-making in relation to attracting more adult learners.

It is to be welcomed that OFFA’s summary report on 2018/19 Access Agreements noted increasing spend – from a low base – on access measures aimed at mature and part-time students, particularly in the development of alternative and flexible study modes and online/distance education.

For those institutions seeking to increase their outreach activities to support more adult learners, engaging with the three-step tool will help them prepare for the next round of Access Agreements, which have to be submitted in April 2018.

John Butcher
John is academic lead on the Open University's Access Programme and heads the Access Observatory