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3 November 2022

Student transitions to higher education: Partnership working


Dr Sally Burtonshaw

Head of Policy, London Higher

In this blog, Dr Sally Burtonshaw, Head of Policy at London Higher, reflects on student transitions to higher education and suggests four key actions the sector could take to improve the way we work with schools.

Sally’s recent PhD research at UCL examines the relationships between schools and universities within access to higher education. You can find Sally on Twitter at @SallyBurtonshaw.

Schools and universities - shared aims?

Progression to higher education for young people is inherently a shared space; the vast majority of (though not all) young people who are progressing to higher education do so from schools. As a result, responsibility for work to support pupils to both progress to, and succeed in, higher education sits in a hybrid zone, led by universities but located within schools.

This is important work if we are to close the gaps in progression to higher education that currently exist between different student groups. UCAS’ Multiple Equity Measure (MEM) shows us that, in 2020, the most advantaged English school pupils were 4.23 times more likely to enter HE than the most disadvantaged.

The shared nature of access and participation work is often a cause of tension, confusion and incoherence which undermines its effectiveness. This is compounded by a lack of shared regulatory requirements between schools and universities and the absence of a common understanding over what successful partnership working between these two sectors would seek to achieve.

Regulatory mismatch

Schools and universities sit in two different sectors, fall within different ministerial briefs, and have two different regulators with very different requirements. These different government and regulatory influences often pull the two sectors in very different directions when it comes to progression to higher education.

For schools, regulated by Ofsted, accountability for progression to higher education falls under Careers Advice and Guidance (CIAG) and is measured using destinations data. Whereas other areas of school accountability, such as GCSE attainment and progression, are highly regulated and perceived as ‘high stakes’, CIAG has received very little regulatory focus despite the launch of the (much delayed) Careers Strategy in 2017 and the subsequent introduction of the Gatsby Benchmarks. CIAG provision ultimately lacks ringfenced funding and is often deprioritised in favour of other objectives, such as increasing performance in schools where GCSE exam results may be below the national average. These schools are predominantly those with large numbers of students under-represented in higher education since attainment is a key barrier for progression.

This lack of regulatory focus on progression to higher education in schools contrasts with the increasing attention given to the access and participation agenda by the university regulator in England, the Office for Students (OfS). The introduction of five year Access and Participation Plans (APPs) to replace annual Access Agreements marked a shift from an inputs to an outputs based system and the requirement for institutions both to meet their own individual targets, and contribute towards the national targets set out by the OfS. Significant amounts of money have been committed by universities to achieve these aims, with £176 million spent on outreach activity in 2019-2020. The demand to show impact, together with the narrow targeting criteria set out by the OfS for access and participation work, has led higher education to focus access and participation work at very specific groups of pupils (those who meet targeting criteria such as POLAR4, those from particular ethnic minority groups, disabled students and care leavers) and to intervene at particular points, invariably later on in their education.

This mismatch between the two sectors leaves progression to higher education activity in the frontierland between the two. Universities are increasingly incentivised to undertake higher education progression work, as well as benefiting from this by direct recruitment. However, they cannot do so without the access to pupils through schools. Schools do not see immediate benefit from this work and are incentivised to focus their – limited – resources elsewhere, to meet the requirements of Ofsted. Often, therefore, schools are perceived as gatekeepers for higher education progression work.

However, this does not need to be the case and progression to higher education activity would be more impactful as a result of more joined up working between schools and universities. Whilst regulatory incentives may make these relationships more challenging, aligning this work will benefit the outcomes for both sectors and, most importantly, the students we serve.

Four key actions for higher education

Four key actions that those working in higher education could take to improve the way we work with schools:

  1. Provide funding to remove the barriers schools report to accessing HE progression activities.
    Cuts to funding over the last 10 years have reduced the resources schools have to support pupils across all areas of school life. The financial implications of the pandemic, as well as the energy crisis, are compounding these issues. Schools have consistently stated that funding to overcome barriers such as transport, paid staff cover for activities and funding for school-based staff to lead on HE progression would increase capacity for schools to engage. HE progression activities should include these costs as part of their budgets.
  2. Co-create progression to HE activities with school-based staff.
    School-based staff are rarely asked for feedback or ideas to inform the creation of higher education progression activities. In my research, not a single of member of school-based staff (all of whom had some sort of remit for supporting pupils to progress to HE) had been asked for their input in any HE progression activity. Involving school-based staff in the creation of activities would ensure valuable school perspectives were taken into account regarding both the content and logistics of the programmes before launch.
  3. Value teacher judgement in identifying pupils for progression to HE activities.The targeting criteria for access and participation activities is often tightly controlled and targeted at specific groups of pupils. Some of these criteria, such as POLAR4, have been criticised as having a high risk error when it comes to identifying individual students. Universities would benefit from working with school-based staff and valuing their professional, context specific knowledge to identify pupils who could benefit from interventions.
  4. Design and deliver longitudinal activities.
  5. Despite regulatory incentives to demonstrate short term impact, there is increasing recognition that we need to start HE progression activities early and sustain these throughout schooling. Working with schools to create embedded and stable programmes of activity rather than ad hoc events will also support in building long term school-university relationships. 

    Building productive relationships between schools and universities can feel like uphill work, where conflicting demands, a shortage of resources and a lack of common understanding can inhibit such work. And yet, done well, such partnerships can lead to greater success across both sectors - well worth the commitment.

If you would like to find out more about QAA’s work supporting successful student transitions, we have an extensive collection of case studies, short papers and practical resources for students and staff on our Membership Resources site.