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Involving students in work on Access, Participation and Success

The Open University is committed to removing inequalities in access participation and success in Higher Education.

Our Access, Participation and Success (APS) Strategy was launched in September 2019 following consultation in March 2019 which included input from students. It is ‘four nation’ in approach incorporating the priorities for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England.

There is formal funding agreements for the University in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with their national Governments. For England, the Access and Participation Plan (APP) 2020-2025 is the agreement between the OU and the Office for Students (OfS) detailing the University’s commitment to removing inequalities in access, participation and success for students who are from under-represented and disadvantaged groups. A proportion of the University’s higher fee income is allocated to supporting this work. Targets set within the APP are based on the analysis of institutional data and agreed following consultation across the University.

The University has been working to better understand why certain groups of students are under-represented at the OU or have less favourable outcomes. The OU has social justice at the heart of its mission but there remain disparities in outcomes for some students in terms of module passes, degree classifications and progression to higher-skilled employment or further study. The scholarship informs changes to University policy and influences practical actions to address the inequalities. Gaining student views is an essential component of this work and students have been involved through participation in surveys, one-to-one interviews, focus groups and informal discussion.

Throughout 2019, the APS team undertook scholarship projects, piloting recommendations through test and learn activities. Projects included:

  • ‘Closing the Black Attainment Gap on Access’ – the project had four strands: workforce; belonging; curriculum; and assessment. The project initially focused on modules within the Access programme but has extended to other undergraduate modules. Involvement from black students informed a report and helped shape the project.
  • ‘Supporting students with mental health issues on Access’ – the project involved student interviews and a survey; a survey and focus group with advisors; a survey and interviews with tutors. The scholarship led to a report highlighting the mental health issues faced by students, the challenges facing staff in supporting students through their studies, the resources and systems available and recommendations to lead to improvement.
  • ‘Evaluation of Students in Secure Environments Funding Programme’ (Funded by: Garfield Weston and the OU Prisoner Education Trust)’ – the project involved surveys and interviews with students to understand the impact studying with the OU had on their life in prison and aspirations after release. The scholarship identified some issues around accessing advice to apply to study and in applying for funding and led to an advertising campaign on prison radio. Student registrations following the campaign rose significantly.

In 2020 more scholarship projects will be launched including deeper research into why ineqitable outcomes for black and minority ethnic (BAME) students persist in Higher Education in the UK.

The University also run seminars for staff throughout the year and a biennial conference. The seminars are for both the OU and wider HE sector. We have been keen to support a strong student presence at seminars, including having a panel of students at the ‘schooled overseas’ seminar. Seminar topics over the last year included:

  • supporting students with mental health difficulties
  • supporting refugee learners
  • impact of assessment on student success; exploring institutional assessment practices to support widening access and success students
  • evaluating widening participation initiatives: overcoming the challenges
  • closing the black attainment gap on Access
  • schooled overseas, studying HE in the UK

The biennial APS conference April 2020 was designed to involve students from across the HE sector. Unfortunately due to the outbreak of COVID-19 the event has been postponed to March 2021 where we hope it will be larger and include more students. This is a paid event but students who present alongside an a member of staff within a higher education provider can have a free place. We aim to promote student voice at the heart of the conference.