Anna Mountford-Zimdars

Dr Anna Mountford-Zimdars

Office for Students adopts University's widening participation self-assessment toolkit

A research tool created by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Social Mobility will be rolled out to all universities to help assess the impact of widening participation activities in Higher Education (HE).

The Office for Students (OfS) has adopted the widening participation self-assessment evaluation tool and will be promoting it to all English higher education providers to help with their monitoring of activities in Access and Participation Plans.

The tool is designed to help providers to self-assess the strengths and weakness of the evaluation of impact, and to highlight the areas where further development would be desirable.

It was the result of a research project led by Dr Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Education.

The project ‘Understanding effective evaluation of the impact of outreach interventions on access to higher education’ was funded by the Office for Students. Co-researchers on the project from the University were Senior lecturer in Education at the Graduate School of Education Dr Pallavi Amitava Banerjee, Research Fellow Joanne Moore and Professor Debra Myhill.

From this the OfS commissioned the University of Exeter’s Centre for Social Mobility to write the evaluation assessment framework which has now been published as part of the OfS guidance for access and participation plans 2020-21.

Dr Mountford-Zimdars said practitioners in HE were being challenged to understand more about effective widening participation evaluation practices.

She said achieving agreement on evaluation solutions and approaches that are owned by the sector and can operate within a changing landscape is challenging, and relies on access to appropriate data sources and staff with analytical expertise and knowledge.

“This self-assessment tool aims to assist providers in planning and reviewing their evaluation plans and methodologies go far enough to create high quality evidence about the impact of their activities. 

“The tool should also help to identify where efforts might be focused in future to improve the strength and quality of evaluations and thus help target resources. Ultimately, this can help bring greater number of disadvantaged learners into higher education,” said Dr Mountford-Zimdars.

The OfS monitors access and participation plans to make sure that the providers honour the commitments they make to students in these plans, and take action if they do not.

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students: “The research outputs from Exeter have been very helpful in informing our guidance on evaluation and we are pleased to be able to support the higher education sector by providing the toolkit. We were keen to bring in expertise from the sector in developing this work, and we hope that they will support a step change in the quality of evaluation approaches. This is essential to achieve transformational improvements in outcomes for students and to secure value for money on the investments that are made in access and participation work.”

The OfS will not use the tool to penalise gaps in evaluation but rather will be looking to commend providers who have a good understanding of both their strengths and their weaknesses in relation to evaluating Access and Participation Plans.

There is not a mandatory requirement for HE to submit completed self-assessment tools, however, the OfS will use the rating scale to understand the extent to which practices across the sector are currently more or less developed in order to target further support.

Date: 22 March 2019