A seminar in London tomorrow (28 November, 2013) hosted by Westminster Higher Education Forum features a wide range of contributors who will be discussing ‘Fair access and widening participation: assessing the National Strategy for access and student success’.

Speakers include Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access (OfFA), Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive of UCAS and Bev Thomas from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

About halfway through the morning programme there will be a session which will consider aspects of evaluation, investment and support for fair access and widening participation. Key questions to be debated include:

  • What steps can HEFCE, OFFA and Government take to encourage more institutions to undertake comprehensive evaluations of the longer‐term impact of their widening participation activity, to ensure future investment is more focused on what works?
  • What financial support measures (bursaries, fee‐waivers etc.) are most likely to be effective in encouraging applicants from non‐traditional backgrounds and what has been the impact of the National Scholarship Scheme to date?
  • What steps can be taken by Government and the HE sector to establish widening participation (WP) activity in primary schools, as suggested in the interim National Strategy report?
  • What can be done to improve the progression rates for learners with vocational qualifications and how can Government encourage greater flexibility for learners to transition between apprenticeships and degree‐study?
  • To what extent should e‐learning models be a part of universities’ WP activity?
  • How successful are Access to HE courses in supporting mature learners into HE and what more can universities do themselves to widen participation amongst mature learners?
  • Should Government encourage universities to collaborate with each other on WP across a region, and if so what lessons can be learned from Aimhigher?

An Open University voice will be present in this debate. This blog post is intended to draw together some thoughts about the OU’s contribution to widening access and participation, and its unique and central position to advancing the government’s aspirations for widening access and student success.

Who are we talking about here?

The Open University is big: we have over 200,000 students; 6,000 Associate Lecturers tutoring those students; a large academic population producing world leading quality curriculum, and world-leading research.  We operate across the four UK nations. We operate a model of open, distance and online learning.

Our students are extremely diverse. The average age of our new undergraduate student is just 30. 62% of new UGs have 2 A-levels or less. 20% of our students come from the most socio-economically deprived quartile. We have the largest community of declared disabled students, and numbers are increasing.

What’s the OU’s take on widening access and participation?

Current and longstanding debates about widening access and participation have inevitably focussed on ‘traditional’ universities offering higher education to predominantly school-leaving age, A-level holding individuals. Outreach work continues to be emphasised and the need for aspiration raising early in the life course, notwithstanding the demise of the Aimhigher programme in England, remains a key activity for most HEIs.

But the Open University is different, in several important ways. We are unique in maintaining an open admissions policy for all our undergraduate programmes. This means that our curriculum needs to inclusively support all students, irrespective of background.

We’ve historically offered a brick-by-brick journey to qualification, with students encouraged to make use of time, space and place, to study in the way that best fits with their life.

We operate across four UK nations, each with devolved higher education responsibilities. Recent changes in England with respect to fees and funding of higher education has create a divergent landscape between nations. The Open University speaks to these individual policy agendas whilst retaining a unified approach to social justice, which includes widening participation.

Our combination of open, distance, part-time, flexible and increasingly online delivery means we are more able to reach those hard-to-reach parts of the UK population.

What does this mean for the ways we widen participation?

Because we are unique, and because we are big, we need to think about how we ‘do’ widening participation. Is it productive or desirable to replicate conventional outreach models, through engaging with schools and colleges in particular areas? Or should we seek to develop unique and innovative models of outreach which speak to, and demonstrate, the uniqueness of the Open University? Who are our ‘local communities’?

Open media routes in / informal to formal learning

The OU/BBC partnership

OU/BBC productions cover a wide range of issues and topics of core interest to the public and society. All our co-productions encourage viewers to begin their learning journey, via a ‘call to action’ at the end of every programme. Specially tailored online content and/or free print items, such as booklets and posters, give audiences the opportunity to actively engage and find out more. Typically 1 million UK viewers respond to the ‘call to action’ after watching a programme, so we are talking about really reaching people.

Frozen Planet is a prime example of this form of outreach, which inspires individuals to engage in learning from the ‘informal’ learning space to the ‘formal’. 44% of the adult viewing population watched at least one episode of Frozen Planet in the series, and it attracted an average of 10.8 million viewers per episode alone. Critically, learners engaged with the free OpenLearn content and nearly 3% of viewers made the transition from informal to formal learning.

There is a range of ways to engage in free learning as a route into our formal programmes of study. They are open to all and are consumed by an UK and international audience:


  • OpenLearn, a free learning resources website from the OU, received 5.2 million unique visitors in 2012/13.
  • OpenLearn has 8,000 hours of learning materials taken from OU undergraduate and postgraduate modules.
  • OpenLearn has 680 active study units plus educational interactives, videos, academic blogs, access to OU podcasts and free printed materials.


  • The OU is a world leader on iTunesU with over 64 million international downloads of its free learning resources.


  • The OU has recently launched FutureLearn. Students from across the world will have free access to some of the UK’s top universities via Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – a web-based multi-university experience designed for a global audience.
  • UK partners now include the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Loughborough, Newcastle, Nottingham, Queen’s University Belfast, Reading, Sheffield, Southampton, Strathclyde and Warwick. International partners include Monash University, based in Melbourne Australia, University of Auckland and Trinity College Dublin. Three non-university partners have also been announced – The British Library, The British Council and The British Museum– and more are joining all the time.
  • FutureLearn draws on the OU’s unparalleled expertise in delivering distance learning and pioneering open education resources and brings together a range of open, online courses from leading UK universities in the same place and under one distinctive brand. The courses will be clear, simple to use and completely free. FutureLearn aims not to replicate lecture-based learning online but reimagine it – and it will increase the accessibility of higher education, opening up a wide range of new online courses and rich learning materials from UK universities to the rest of the world.
  • Two Futurelearn courses suggest approaches to widen participation and support student success are permeating even these most innovative and disruptive forms of HE delivery:
    • Preparing for University, by the University of East Anglia (January 2014, 6 weeks)
    • A beginners guide to writing in English for University study, by University of Reading (February 2014, 4 weeks)

Offender learning

We work with and in prisons and secure institutions to enable higher education for offenders, working to reduce recidivism, providing structure and meaning to ex-offenders upon release.

Partnerships for access

The Social Partnerships Network is a network of organisations with national reach and shared commitments to widening access and participation. Organisations in the network include:

  • Association of Colleges
  • Learn Direct
  • Leonard Cheshire
  • National Extension College
  • UnionLearn
  • Unison
  • WEA (Workers Educational Association)

The objective of the network is to drive the social inclusion agenda and develop sustainable ways of reaching out to potential adult learners. We are working together to develop strategies and activities that lead to the creation of a more diverse HE system able to meet the needs of diverse learners, supporting lifelong learning, social mobility and workplace learning, improving economic growth and health and welfare.

Access curriculum

Around 150,000 learners have come to higher education and experienced a second chance through our access, or introductory study programme. Previously called Openings, now simply Access modules, they offer non-confident learners a subject focused route into higher education which builds and assesses students against key study skills.

The short study period and relatively small amount of credit are designed to encourage non-confident students to ‘dip a toe in the water’, and enable them to make a flying start in their studies.

The modules are characterised by a large amount of tutor support and feedback. This is organised and scheduled by negotiation between student and tutor and usually takes the form of six to seven conversations over the life of the module.

Students who start with an Access module do better when they progress: students without any formal qualifications at all (around 1 in 20 of our students), achieve at rates 20% higher than had they simply started the undergraduate programme, as it were, ‘cold’.

And notwithstanding an open admissions system, Access students are more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds: 1 in 3 of our England Access students are from the most deprived quintile of IMD.

Measurement and Evaluation

There is, quite rightly, new emphasis in announcements and guidance from OFFA and HEFCE on evaluation and demonstrating the impact of activities and initiatives to widen access and participation.

The Open University has responded by establishing a programme of evaluation which spans institutional activity, and touches on all units who engage with students. So it’s not just Faculty (although they play an absolutely critical role), but it’s also Marketing (a huge functional area at the OU as you can imagine), our Student Services staff across all our national and regional centres, and our Open Media Unit which produces our open learning and co-produces with the BBC.

Embedded action planning processes for these units ensure that there is senior level scrutiny and ownership of widening participation activity. The institution aligns its equality and diversity and widening participation activity, to ensure objectives shared between these two areas are mutually supportive.

Notwithstanding these developments, important tensions remain, including: How do we measure, in a scientific way activity which is already mainstreamed? and How do we compare our performance against other institutions? And perhaps one for the OU alone, but still worth mentioning: How can we tackle the challenges of proactively negotiating increasingly different national HE contexts?

What are the key challenges for the National Strategy?

The National Strategy for Access and Student Success offers the opportunity to unify principles derived from well over a decade of experience and research about getting ‘non-traditional’ students into higher education and supporting successful outcomes, and it will be attempting to do this against a background of severely constrained public resources.

  • Supporting the full range of higher education, to ensure routes and opportunities are maximised;
  • Acknowledging and enabling the role of widening participation in driving the recovery of part-time and mature higher education;
  • Embracing and encouraging new forms of ‘outreach’ to include innovative new approaches and outreach at scale.

Concluding thoughts

The first point I want to make is something that we are all very aware of: Social mobility and access to higher education is not just about 18 year olds. We know that part-time study has an important life-changing role to play, particularly for adult learners – most of whom are in work and play a crucial role in contributing to economic growth.

The Open University has a proven track record in up-skilling and re-skilling the UK workforce. Students usually earn while they learn and 81% of part-time undergraduate students remain in work while studying. Part-time students are net contributors to the Exchequer through income tax, employees’ national insurance contributions (NIC) and employer’s’ NIC. The recent UUK ‘Power of Part-Time’ report usefully summarises these arguments for part-time provision, and highlights challenges around strong information advice and guidance; the role for industry and employers; and the critical need for evidence and modelling, especially related to price, loans and ELQ.

HEFCE’s list of widening participation groups still includes mature learners, and the interim report on the National Strategy underlines that outreach needs to also be directed at mature individuals, not just our younger potential students. Continuing investment is crucial for ensuring mature students from disadvantaged backgrounds are given the support they need to be successful.

But the critical point is that the OU is utterly distinctive in the sector: its reach and scale, its innovative use of free and open media and educational resources, and its open admissions policy offers opportunities for the widest possible range of students to experience higher education.

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