London Higher, AccessHE and Other Reflections

Just over a year after joining London Higher, my colleague Dr Jamie Mackay has kindly written this piece for my new blog. Thanks Jamie!

LinkedIn recently informed me I was celebrating my one year Anniversary at AccessHE, a key division of London Higher. And I asked myself; has it really been only a year? The sector has changed so much and I have learnt so much! Those who know me well, know I’m a fan of lists, so when I was invited to write a blog article, I thought I would focus on 10 personal observations from the past 14 months:

  1. London is different and diverse, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Through the work of AccessHE (one particular highlight for me was our research on access into higher education for unaccompanied asylum seeker children) and London Higher (really impressed with the London Works project – more on this below), I have discovered so much about not just Fair Access into HE in London (we’re actually rather good at it) but I have also learnt that there are further challenges after widening participation (WP) cohorts have enrolled. Proud that collectively, we are in a position where we can help.
  2. Collaboration between universities is strong. Across London Higher and the various divisions, we have more HE networking opportunities than any other organisation. Indeed in AccessHE, we now have eight Action Forums and Groups which welcome a wide range of HE staff from our membership. Chaired by some of these staff, the groups enable colleagues to speak to and share good practice amongst like-minded travellers on the Fair Access journey. What has particularly struck me is how fortunate we are in London to have such a diverse range of institutions (including many alternative providers) that enables a rich field of knowledge and experience.
  3. There is a desire to demonstrate impact. The recently published guidance on access and participation plans from the Office for Students doesn’t shy away from stating that HEIs must ensure continuous improvement in access and participation activities. Through our Evidence and Evaluation Forum – and I understand the London Higher HE Planners Group is also rather vocal in this area – we have seen an increasing appetite to capture and analyse data from different initiatives to better understand what works but also raise the profile of such activities both within an institution (inreach, if you will) and to external audiences (e.g. at the annual NEON Summer Symposium). Through (e.g.) our Impact London initiative, we continue to support our members by offering the ability to draw down specialist support in evaluation from AccessHE to help members better demonstrate the impact their work is having in supporting widening access into and through higher education in London.
  4. Is London behind on the Degree Apprenticeships movement? This really surprises me but from what I have seen over the last year, London HEIs don’t appear to be embracing the Degree Apprenticeships opportunity as much as I thought they would. Don’t get me wrong – there are some great examples of engagement (e.g. London South Bank University, Middlesex University and University of East London) but with so many institutions, together with so many Standards now ready for delivery, why are so few getting involved? So it was great to see our ‘Degree Apprenticeships: A social mobility opportunity‘ event on 23 April drawing some conclusions.
  5. There’s so much student accommodation and yet, there are so many commuter students. During my travels around London, visiting members and attending events, I have noticed there is a great deal of student accommodation popping up all over the place! And yet, London, like other metropolitan regions, is seeing an increase in the number of commuter students (take a look at the London Higher Key Factsheets collection for other interesting statistics on London students). Perhaps the accommodation is in anticipation of the incoming demand for places HEPI have forecast?
  6. Students appreciate the opportunity to be heard. As readers might be aware, AccessHE is playing a leading role in the HEFCE/OfS-funded London National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP). The year one report from HEFCE and CFE Research was very clear in highlighting the learner voice. Moreover, there is a desire to ensure the learner voice informs the ongoing development of the programme. This is something we are doing in our NCOP activities with schools in the London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham and Havering but I’m also proud that the university learner voice is also being captured through two other channels: The AccessHE Student Advisory Group and the London Works initiative, in conjunction with The Student Room with the creation of the London is my campus hub on their website. If you’re not familiar with this, I encourage you to take a look.
  7. There’s still work to be done in engaging schools. At AccessHE as part of London NCOP, we have learnt a lot over the last year in coordinating collaborative activities with schools in East London but through our Schools’ Strategy Group, we have also discovered how difficult it can be to get staff out. Nevertheless, feedback when engagements do take place is always positive!
  8. Despite turbulence (and perhaps some uncertainty) within universities, morale is generally positive – but there is an appreciation for a listening ear! It’s been really sad to hear the word ‘restructure’ being used quite a lot in some of the membership meetings I have sat in. However, there has also been a certain amount of habituation – somebody recently asked if there was a degree course in Change Management – and resilience shown. Moreover, because we are in London, I think colleagues are always reassured they are not alone and there are other opportunities should things go sour.
  9. It’s easier to get ‘heard’ in London. Leading on from the above, I have noticed that colleagues appreciate you visiting them but also like reasons to meet in other parts of London. This is particularly pertinent to our events where we have seen increased attendance from our members but also non-members and other organisations such as DfE, HEFCE, HEPI, OFFA and UCAS. All very encouraging and I can’t help think it could be partly down to location…
  10. You’re never bored working in a small business! Having come from another small business, I have been used to mucking in and doing things that I wouldn’t ordinarily have to do when working in a large business like a university. And it’s no different at London Higher. Indeed it’s quite nice to hear about what other divisions are getting up to and exploring ways we can support each other. As some of my oldest colleagues will know, I have a reputation as an unofficial IT support technician!

Just one more thing, if you are reading this and you work with us, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on all the different ways we have worked together during the last year. I anticipate some things have been spot on – others, not so much. But that’s what collaboration is about – joining forces to try things out to make a difference and learning along the way. I really look forward to the next 12 months as the OfS takes shape and HEIs continue to try things out themselves to maintain their role in the communities they serve. Have no doubt, we at London Higher will be there alongside you to help in any way we can.

Written by Dr Jamie Mackay, Deputy Head of AccessHE.