Opinion: Leveraging data to widen participation past the point of entry

Richard Gascoigne, CEO of Solutionpath, on how the higher education sector can employ tech to support disadvantaged students… 

Technology is not a simple fix for complex societal needs but it can enable institutions to evaluate the impact of widening participation initiatives, and can go on to support disadvantaged students once they are through the front door.

woman wearing academic cap and dress selective focus photography

Photo by MD Duran

Widening participation aims to increase access and opportunities for underrepresented groups, such as students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students, minority groups, and students with disabilities. It is crucial for promoting fairness, diversity, economic growth and social mobility.

Improving access has been relatively successful, in that more disadvantaged students now attend university than previous years. Black pupils for example, have seen the greatest increase in the proportion entering higher education, from 44.1% in 2009-10 to 63.5% in 2021-22.

But the issues of widening participation do not end at the point of entry. It is widely accepted that disadvantaged students are progressing at a significantly lower rate than that of the majority group. The IFS Deaton Review highlighted the fact that while 71% of people who attend private secondary schools earn a degree by the age of 26, just 17% of people from the poorest fifth of families do so.

UCAS A-Level results data shows that 79% of 18 year-olds in the UK secured their first-choice plan, compared to 81% last year. However, for every disadvantaged student that got a place, 2.3 advantaged students progressed – compared to 2.29 in 2021. UCAS CEO Clare Marchant said that, ‘challenges in widening participation to the most disadvantaged students still persist’.

Identifying risk and supporting interventions

Richard Gascoigne, CEO of Solutionpath.

Richard Gascoigne, CEO of Solutionpath.

While the sector has invested heavily in widening participation initiatives in recent years, new approaches and strategies could help further support disadvantaged groups.

Student engagement analytics is now playing a crucial role in supporting widening participation initiatives by providing insights and measurable data-driven strategies to enhance the participation and success of underrepresented groups. The technology can provide valuable insight into information on student behaviours that lead to early student withdrawals, patterns that uncover the challenges, and offer insights to provide more timely interventions. By leveraging this data, we can develop much more targeted strategies, interventions and support systems.

With engagement analytics, we can identify students whose behaviours are changing; often the precursors to many issues. Whether emerging health, pastoral or academic, engagement is a proven route to early outreach. Technology can help universities and colleges pinpoint students who may require additional support by analysing their participation in things like class activities and access to resources. The technology reports the student in the moment, painting a true picture of a student’s engagement in real time, which can be measured against themselves or their peers.

Universities can then use the insight to evaluate the impact of a widening participation initiative and to develop targeted support interventions based on individual student needs. Data analysis will identify specific areas where students are struggling and help in the designing of interventions to address those challenges. This could involve promoting the use of resources or providing academic tutoring, mentoring or access to wider services.

Adhering to B3

More institutions are seeking to develop a data-informed approach to supporting student success as a response to the regulatory requirement from the Office for Students (OfS) contained in condition B3, namely for a provider to ‘deliver successful outcomes for all its students’.

Being able to identify which students, courses or cohorts of students are at risk of not progressing could shape institutional approaches to better support their students. Doing so earlier may help institutions ensure more students progress to successful outcomes.

Playing the long game with impactful data

While working with the University of Bedfordshire (UoB), we’ve seen the clear link between engagement data and condition B3.

A daily data view (+history) now accessible to UoB is the basis for its annual continuation report and is enabling staff to see that what they do ‘now’ will impact next year’s data. Engagement data is considered by UoB exam boards, meaning that opportunities to discuss themes and issues around student engagement and the broader question of ‘risk’ is openly part of progression decision-making and the co-curation of the students’ own learning.

Use of the various insight reports is evolving but intentionally distributing them on a weekly or monthly basis (depending on the data and the responsibilities of the recipients), with a clear expectation of follow-up action, is further embedding institutional use of data as a core function within the academic and pastoral role. Some level of oversight of staff engagement is also present, not least because of the requirement on the university to report to OfS in terms of progression against Access and Participation Plan objectives. This approach further enables the university to target any staff developmental activity.

Access and Participation Plans set out how higher education providers will improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education. Data insights underpin these plans and ensure the spotlight stays firmly on the university target groups via insight dashboards and reports, removing barriers to providing targeted support to under-represented groups and empowering them with their own data, too.

Widening participation initiatives often involve the rolling-out of various programmes. Student engagement analytics can help assess the effectiveness of these initiatives by measuring engagement levels pre and post specific interventions. This important data can inform decision-making processes and guide adjustments to programmes to improve their impact without subjective views.

By leveraging engagement data, universities can make informed decisions to enhance their widening participation strategies for not just attracting but also retaining and supporting a diverse student population. They can provide personalised support services that keep students engaged and go on to aid their individual success.

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