Why and how the post-Covid world could offer more opportunities for widening participation in England

This blog was first published by HEPI on 16 June 2020

Written by Renata Albuquerque, Sam Dunnett, Annette Hayton, Colin McCaig & Anna Mountford-Zimdars


The authors of this blog believe that despite the difficulties we all face in the current circumstances, there are constructive ways forward that allow the post-Covid world to offer more equitable opportunities for young people to access the information they need about higher education. There are some generally acknowledged difficulties, not least, as a recent HEPI blog noted the ‘whole scale experiment in online learning’ revealed differences in engagement between synchronous (live session), blended or asynchronous online learning courses.

Young people from all social backgrounds require access to outreach activities but particularly those without a cultural tradition of higher education study. Evaluation requires re-thinking in the current conditions, but it is essential if we are to maintain and improve quality of provision, particularly of long running programmes. However, here we focus on the digital opportunities, relationships between schools, colleges and higher education institutions that can facilitate this to the greatest extent.

Digital Opportunities

We have an excellent opportunity to address educational inequality resulting from students and staff lack of access to suitable tools and state sector teachers need for skills and time to develop online resources. The new world might well be blended in the medium and longer term with teachers and students upskilled to be technologically savvy, having the right home-equipment and could herald a new engagement with learning in the future.

Schools, universities and charities have already stepped up to differential access to hardware by loaning or supplying laptops. Connectivity is an equally great and equally fixable issue, albeit it will take time. Authors of the most recent Labour Party Manifesto will take some comfort that they were right all along regarding the importance of equalizing internet connectivity; for now, it is important to identify and address areas of poor connectivity and ensure disadvantaged young people have the time and space to access new learning opportunities.

Supporting students in their choices and transitions

There is an opportunity for schools, colleges and higher education institutions to work together more closely. Higher education institutions can lend their expertise to the development of digital content. Teachers, schools and university staff can also work together to support students at key points of transition. Uni Connect partnerships have identified these in their Progression Plans and most Outreach Teams in Higher education institutions offer activities that address, for example GCSE and A-Level Choice and Transition to higher education. Consulting with teachers on the best way to adapt and deliver these important interventions is essential as the context has changed so radically. For example, the current cohort of Year 13s, who had been working towards final A-Level examinations, will be entering higher education in October having had no traditional classroom teaching since March.

Higher education institutions have the technology to bring incoming students together in new ways such as liaising with students before they arrive and getting them used to learning in a higher education setting but setting these up require time and people. New tools allow universities to deliver online learning experiences with the potential to increase students’ confidence and help create a meaningful connection with the higher education institution and their staff before they even having set foot onto the physical campus – providing a firm foundation for successful transition to undergraduate study. Many universities, for example are currently designing virtual Summer school for students from year 10 to year 12. The objective is to creatively replicate online the ‘sense of belonging’ that Summer schools traditionally build.

Collaboration between higher education institutions

Collaboration between institutions, with the help of the Office for Students (OfS), could not only help reach the maximum number of potential applicants, but go some way to redeeming the sector’s reputation by demonstrating that student well-being is of greater importance than market share. For example, Capital L, the London consortium of Routes into languages has delivered a joint Summer School for year 10 students since 2008. This collaboration reduces the operational burden on individual Higher education institutions while providing young people with a rich and varied experience. Like many other outreach activities, this Summer School will be delivered online in 2020.

Uni Connect partnerships and Outreach Teams in higher education institutions can now offer online activities at a previously unthinkable scale: for example, prospective students could pop into Salford for their breakfast discussion, then visit Canterbury Christ Church for their open day before having a social lunch with other students across the UK thinking about studying pure Maths. Alas, they still have to bring their own sandwiches before checking in at Exeter University’s new course Q&A session.

Making the right choice of higher education institution in a competitive market is clearly challenging for all prospective students, and particularly so for those from backgrounds without a tradition of higher education.

In this context, the importance of collaborative activity to ensure that students have access to a range of information and options for the future has never been greater. Collaborative activities could introduce learners to a range of undergraduate programmes, focused on particular career paths and subject. These could be designed to replicate the navigational skills and knowledge required to make an informed choice as well as providing links to more detail about specific Higher education institutions and courses for students to pursue further. UniConnect and other collaborative partnerships have already initiated this type of approach and should be further supported financially by the OfS.

There is a real opportunity to co-ordinate this information to provide national coverage, allowing students to explore options outside of their immediate locality. The first step is to guarantee a continuation of funding for Uni Connect partnerships to ensure continued engagement between higher education institutions, colleges, schools and students at a local level. Information without support to develop students’ capacity to navigate the system could be more, not less, divisive. Funding for a national portal should be provided, resulting in the equivalent one-stop shop for all higher education advice, guidance and events.


Despite the challenges there are some exciting opportunities and realistic prospects to be optimistic about the potential for digital and collaborative provision for widening participation post Covid-19. We do not wish to trivialise concerns for the most vulnerable students at this time of crisis who may be not safe or looked after. Perhaps it is not least with those young people in mind that we owe it to them and to future students that something good has to come out of the upheaval to their education. There are reasons to believe that such positive and sustainable changes are possible now and that new ways of enhancing and equalising widening participation support and guidance are possible.

This blog was kindly contributed by five co-authors:

Renata Albuquerque, Widening participation Manager (Languages & Communities), SOAS, London
Sam Dunnett, Head of Widening Participation, University of Sussex
Annette Hayton, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Education, University of Bath
Colin McCaig, Professor of Higher Education at Sheffield Hallam University
Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Professor of Social Mobility Exeter University (authors listed alphabetically)

Lessons for adapting home learning from parents with children with special educational needs

By Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Hatice Yildirim, University of Exeter

This blog was first published by BERA (British Educational Research Association) on 8 June 2020.

‘Doing less, making learning fun and looking after everyone’s wellbeing’

Most parents of children with special education needs (SEN) were required or chose to school their children from home during the Covid-19 school closure: children with SEN but without an education, health and care plan were not eligible to staying in schools, and participation in schooling among all groups eligible to participate has been significantly lower than policy models predicted, dropping to 1 per cent of all school children in April 2020. Read More

Widening Participation practitioners wont let COVID-19 closures stop them from delivering HE access activities

This blog was first published on the UCL website, on 26 May 2020

By Professor Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility, University of Exeter

School closures have led to widely discussed concerns regarding the safety, well-being and attainment and progression of students already considered disadvantaged or at risk. Unfortunately, our newly published paper exploring the impact of lockdown reveals widespread cancellation of widening participation (WP) activities such as face-to-face sessions in schools, residential summer schools and university taster days that are designed to help these pupils progress into Higher Education.

Encouragingly, ingenuity has been many practitioners watchword and new modes of delivery are springing up that could preserve some activity in the face of adversity and even create new ways of reaching potential students: after initial cancellations, universities are offering alternative virtual offer-holder or taster days as well as support materials and webinars for students, teachers and parents.

No underestimating the upheaval

As part of this OfS funded studyThe Centre for Social Mobility at The University of Exeter worked with think-tank The Centre for Education and Youth to survey WP and Uni Connect practitioners. Uni Connect, formerly known as the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) consists of 29 partnerships between universities, colleges and local partners working with over 180,000 young people and 1,613 schools to support decisions around and progress into higher education. The aim was to highlight issues and concerns while developing policy and practice recommendations to ensure universities doors do not close to traditionally underrepresented groups.

Our findings show that school closures have impacted negatively on all but a handful of respondents work. The most common implication has been postponement or cancellation of planned activities and alarmingly, one Uni Connect partnership said 182 events had been cancelled so far.

Where events have been postponed, practitioners were in no doubt about the knock on effects that were likely to follow. These will not be short-lived. One Uni Connect practitioner said much of the work they have spent the last four months planning is now postponed and finding new dates and re-booking events will detract from the work that would normally start in September.

From adversity springs innovation

Encouragingly, respondents also identified new approaches that they were planning for, or had already pursued. Several were optimistic that developments introduced due to For example, one WP Officer commented that the current situation has opened new channels for communications with schools, and that telephone conversations have taken on a more personal touch.

Increasing the use of online materials and a shifting to online delivery of events were at the forefront of new developments but respondents also described online mentoring, virtual residentials and tailored support via email.

We found that:

  • Seven out of ten respondents in university WP and related roles said that open days would be offered online.
  • Over six out ten said their universities were offering online events similar to teaching, alongside static online resources.
  • Online forums or Q&A with current undergraduates featured for 58% of university respondents overall, and just under half (49%) were offering online events for teachers and advisors.
  • Respondents in Russell Group institutions were more likely than those in other types of institutions to offer static online resources.
  • More respondents in the post-92 and other categories of institutions were offering bespoke higher education transition support compared to those in Russell Group institutions.
  • Around two-fifths in post-92 institutions (39%) and a quarter in other types of institutions (24%) were offering online events for parents, compared to 14% of respondents in Russell Group institutions.
  • Virtual residentials featured more highly for respondents in Russell Group institutions (44%) compared to only 17% of respondents in other institutions.
  • Respondents in the other category of universities were most likely to say they were reviewing or creating contextual admissions policies (41%), well above twice the share of respondents in the Post-92 and Russell Group institutions.

*Caution low base

Backing the bounce-back

None of this is easy and it would be optimistic to think these responses will be enough to overcome the considerable hurdles in the way of efforts to ensure all young people have fair and equitable access to HE. It is clear that it cannot be left to individual universities to patch up the gaps in provision. Respondents therefore called for national-level support and leadership to help them ensure young people bounce back from the pandemic.

I would like to see an offer of a national programme of online activities/events/webinars that students and parents can access during this time which can help to prepare for the next step.

Clear and concise messaging to pass to schools and students about HE progression and the UCAS process this summer.

The cancelling of A levels and the proposed use of constructed grades is causing a lot of concern and also raising questions about how they and other measures can be used for selection while still being fair and encouraging widening participation.

Quantitative data from our survey also showed that there was a particular desire to focus on well-being and to provide support for young people falling behind.

Rising to the challenge

A generation will feel the effects of this school and university closures if WP activity is allowed to stumble in the face of the pandemic. A combination of sector-led ingenuity and national action is therefore needed to mitigate current circumstances. The online world offers many opportunities for overcoming some barriers disadvantaged students are likely to face in accessing outreach activities. These include challenges around transport, timing and the time involved in participating in face-to-face events. If connectivity to the internet and access to physical resources such as laptops and smartphones and quiet places to study were equal, the online provision would go a very long way to equalizing access to information, advice and guidance. The involuntary massive online move may thus act as a positive catalyst for enhancing outreach practices long-term.

We are encouraged by the fact that our research suggests Widening Participation practitioners are taking the first steps, and in doing so, learning lessons and developing new approaches that could inform future practice. It is now time to ensure this practice is replicated across the sector, and that national action backs up on-the-ground innovation.

Prof Anna Mountford-Zimdars*, Joanne Moore*, Dr Sam Baars**, Loic Menzies**
*University of Exeter, **The Centre for Education and Youth
For a longer report on the survey of admissions and outreach staff, please see
Mountford-Zimdars, A and Moore, J (2020) Safety, food and well-being are a greater concern than attainment: The views from university widening participation staff in the context of Covid-19, Centre for Social Mobility, University of Exeter, Working Paper.
The research had ethical approval and started five days into the school closure, the survey was available from 25th March to 20th April and received 262 responses.
Some data collection was supported by an OfS commissioned project/contract. For further information on the University of Exeter and Centre for Education and Youth on the impacts of School Closure survey please see: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/socialmobility/projects/
The project team for this work are from the University of Exeter unless otherwise indicated: Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Joanne Moore, Sam Baars (Centre for Education and Youth) Nicola Sinclair, Kevin Denny (University College Dublin), Annabel Watson, Will Shield, Katherin Barg, Nick Long, Luke Graham, Paul Woolnough, Sara Venner, Taro Fujita, Julie Mason, Verity Hunt, ZhiMin Xiao, Dongbo Zhang, Neil French, Judith Kleine Staarman, Alison Black, Emily Warwick, Brahm Norwich. We would like to thank our critical friends for feedback on the surveys: Ciaran Burke (University of the West of England), and Steven Jones (University of Manchester).

Read More

Foundation (courses) for success?

Regardless of your background, access to prestigious Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) has traditionally been a relatively straight forward scenario: you meet the entry requirements, or you don’t. However, things are changing in recognition of the argument that achieving, let’s say, A-level grades BBB in the context of social or economic disadvantage and/or a significantly disrupted education is as good an indicator of academic potential as meeting entry requirements (usually somewhere in the AAB-AAA region) in the absence of disadvantage. So-called contextual offers attempt to look beyond A-level score as a ‘gold standard’ of educational promise and take a more holistic view of the applicant. Indeed, most HEIs already have some sort of contextual admissions process (Sundorph, Vasilev and Coiffait, 2017).  Read More

The National Tutoring Service

Lee Elliot Major, Emily Tyers and Robin Chu

We believe a National Tutoring Service (NTS) could help tackle stark education gaps in the wake of the Covid-19 school closures. The NTS is a proposed coalition of tutoring organisations, universities and schools to mobilise undergraduates and graduates to help improve the achievement of disadvantaged pupils in the core subjects of English and Maths across the UK. The service would have multiple benefits: boosting volunteering among undergraduates, offering employment for graduates, and helping teachers in their efforts to level-up education’s playing field. Read More

How will flaws in predicted grades affect this year’s students?

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter.

A version of this blog was published by the Daily Telegraph.

It’s one of those puzzling aspects of our university system that has always caused controversy. In the UK, unlike any other country in the world, students apply for university degrees not with their actual grades, but with grades predicted by their teachers. Universities give conditional offers on the basis of these predicted grades. Offers, under normal circumstances, are then confirmed when students get their actual A-level grades. Read More

Centre for Social Mobility blog goes live!

Welcome to the University of Exeter’s blog for the Centre for Social Mobility.

This is a platform for academics, researchers, students and staff to share their thoughts, research insights and innovative ideas relating to widening participation and improving social mobility at the University of Exeter. We hope that this blog inspires, engages and encourages collaborative working to help improve the educational outcomes for students from under-represented backgrounds.

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