Are we at a crossroads for access and participation?

Wednesday 9 November 2022, Widening access and participation

by Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser and Ellie Rowley, Fair Access Programme Lead

Are we at a crossroads for access and participation?

Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser and Ellie Rowley, Fair Access Programme Lead

Supporting disadvantaged students is at the heart of UCAS’ charitable objects – we are committed to helping students from all backgrounds in progressing into and through education. Our origin story itself – the merger of Universities Central Council on Admissions (UCCA) and Polytechnics Central Admissions System (PCAS) in 1992 – was designed to create equality of opportunity for aspiring students, streamlining two systems into one.

Most recently, UCAS has significantly invested in this area through the launch of the Fair Access Programme to build on our existing work and add additional value to the work already underway across the sector. Through our response to the Office for Students’ consultation on a new approach to regulating equality of opportunity, UCAS has set out what our data and insights tell us about both the opportunities and risks that lie ahead, and how our Fair Access Programme can support the sector in achieving a step-change in access.

The ‘journey to a million’ applicants and the impact on widening access and participation

It is UCAS’ view that Access and Participation Plans (APPs) must reflect a dynamic external environment. For example, the next four years – the proposed timeframe set-out in the consultation – are set to see unprecedented demand for education and training.

We forecast that there could be up to a million applicants in 2026, compared to the just over 700,000 currently. This increase is a result of a rise in the 18 year old population, higher demand for HE from these 18 year olds, and more international students choosing the UK. It is key that the revised approach to equality of opportunity is mindful of this shift in dynamics.

The risk of not doing so is that disadvantaged students, who are more likely to be at the lower end of the attainment spectrum, get squeezed out – making this external context front and centre of APPs will ensure relevancy for this four-year cycle, and those that follow.

The benefits of balancing sector and provider-level priorities for widening access

UCAS is supportive of the proposal to balance the need to address sector-wide challenges in access and participation with local priorities, which can (and do) differ. For example, in UCAS’ research report, What happened to the COVID cohort?, we identified that, overall, the equality challenge is greater for higher tariff providers across most measures, including POLAR, FSM and ethnicity, and yet the gender gap is widest at lower tariff providers and medium tariff providers see the most notable difference in geographical inequality by region.

UCAS’ can support the identification of risks to equality of opportunity, both at sector and provider level. That’s why we will wish to work with the OfS to input directly into the national Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR) as well as continuing to evolve and expand the range of data and analyses that we supply to individual universities and colleges. For example, the 2023 entry cycle represents a significant advancement in the breadth of equality information shared with providers, with seven new questions added to the application.

UCAS is the right place to communicate to students about APPs

UCAS is the single biggest gateway to post-18 opportunities, with receiving over 30 million unique visits a year. We are experts in communicating complex information to students, tailoring content to individuals’ circumstances – in our view, it would be more effective for ‘accessible summaries’ of APPs to sit alongside such personalised content about choices and support, which we provide on We would be willing to work with the OfS to solicit additional feedback from students and their advisers via our surveys and network of advisory groups.

Evaluation, evaluation, evaluation

UCAS welcomes the OfS’ focus on generating and disseminating new evidence about what works to improve access and participation – this can only be achieved through a razor-sharp focus on evaluation.

The Outreach Evaluator is a service developed by UCAS in 2014. It provides robust statistical evidence on the impacts of engagement activities for higher education providers and charitable organisations. Through the service, UCAS can act as a vehicle for showcasing and evidencing evaluation via case studies and user cases. We will also join up with TASO and tracking services to ensure that our evidence base is fed into the wider discussion around what works in progression to HE.

UCAS’ role in bridging the gap between schools and universities and colleges

Our well-established relationships with more than 4,500 teachers and careers advisers across the UK mean we can play a critical role in helping to connect universities and colleges to schools.

UCAS research – Where Next? What influences the choices school leavers make? – supports the OfS encouraging partnerships with schools as we highlight the importance of early aspiration raising; one in three applicants report first thinking about HE at primary school, with advantaged students 1.4 times more likely to do this than their disadvantaged peers. As part of the Fair Access Programme, we are developing a new service – the UCAS Outreach Connection, which will help connect schools and students to the appropriate outreach activities, following feedback in our consultation that this can sometimes be challenging to navigate. After extensive research and scoping, we are aiming to launch the service for the 2023 application cycle, creating a ‘single source of truth’ about the trusted outreach opportunities available to all UCAS-registered centres in the UK. 

Sign up for bulletins to stay informed about the UCAS Fair Access Programme.