Guest Blog: Richard Boffey blogs about taking AccessHE online

One need only look at the work of London universities in training frontline healthcare workers, modelling the spread of covid-19, and researching a vaccine to see that they are essential to the fight against the virus. Yet as increasing evidence of the coronavirus pandemic’s amplifying effect on existing inequalities comes to light, it is important not to overlook the role of HE providers in the capital as engines of social mobility – a role they have played since long before the onset of this crisis. Through recruiting, educating and preparing learners from all walks of life for the world of work, London HEIs help to ensure anyone, irrespective of their background and circumstances, can benefit from higher education and the benefits it provides. This is a mission that is as critical now as it ever has been.

AccessHE is the division of London Higher focused on the widening access to HE agenda. We work collaboratively with our 23 HEI members to support learners from underrepresented groups with progression into, and through, HE. Much of that work comes in the form of collaborative projects such as outreach events with schools and colleges and the wider community, and training for outreach staff involved in access and participation work. Lockdown has forced a radical rethink of this approach, much of which had, to date, relied on face-to-face interaction, and we have been working hard to ensure support for students across London, both current and pre-entry, can continue.

This has meant taking a lot of our activity online. We have done so in consultation with our members, including through a virtual roundtable meeting held in late April. It was clear following that discussion that a considerable amount of digital content was being created by HEIs in London; what was needed was a means of promoting it to learners and to schools, which we have done through a newly-launched social media campaign, #AccessHEHour, and by hosting a weekly virtual coffee morning in which schools can connect with HE staff. Where our partner schools have identified gaps in outreach provision for London learners, we have sought to fill the void, for instance by creating a programme of online short courses, and running virtual events together with our members (the first, exploring degree apprenticeships, will be taking place later this month).

Other projects we have launched focus on supporting current students from widening access backgrounds. According to recent research by the Sutton Trust, a large proportion of students (especially those studying at post-1992 universities) have reported loss of earnings or part-time work as a result of covid-19, and in response we have launched a London-wide Student Advocate Programme, which provides employability experience to students across our membership by paying them to deliver online outreach to London school groups. Finally, for the staff at our members working with widening access students, we have set up virtual spaces – ‘AccessHE Communities’ – linked to our action forums, that enable them to come together, collaborate and share best practice.

Even with a phased re-opening of schools and workplaces now being mooted, it is clear that outreach and student engagement will be conducted via a blended approach, if not entirely online, for the foreseeable future. We hope that the projects we have launched during the lockdown period will provide a platform for our HE members and partners in London to do that with maximum positive impact.