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)

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