The Office for Students has recently published new Access and Participation Guidance with a requirement to produce Five-Year Plans that are ‘credible and ambitious’ from the 2020/21 Academic Year.

There’s a lot of detail in the guidance and it might appear quite daunting. However, in amongst the detail of the requirements for these plans, you will note a focus on ‘The Theory of Change’.

Simply put, ‘The Theory of Change’ requires institutions to develop their Access and Participation Plans with the end in mind – mapping back to the activities and interventions needed to achieve this desired end, as well as maintaining an evidence-base (including key performance measures) that can be used to demonstrate successful outcomes.

With this focus in mind, it’s worth looking beyond the ‘process’ of creating the Five-Year Access and Participation Plans to the best ‘approach’ to adopt when developing these plans.

I had a recent discussion with a SUMS member – specifically about Equality, Diversity and Inclusion but the same applies here. I asked what kind of qualities demonstrated successful EDI for their University. Their response showed more about attitude and approach, than process:

  • Strong, visible, genuine senior management commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
  • A shared commitment to the agenda across all layers of management
  • Clear evidence-based prioritisation of initiatives
  • Strong aspirations to mainstream and embed EDI within the Institution.

I bring up these qualities in order to explore the motivation and key drivers for the development of Access and Participation Plans.

So, let’s explore!

First – Why should you develop an Access and Participation Plan? Is it (A) solely because this is a requirement of the OfS, or (B) because the University has a strong, visible, genuine commitment and vision to promote equality of opportunity for under-represented groups in their student cohorts?

Second – In your view what is the Access and Participation Plan? Is it (A) an end in itself, or (B) a tool to help the University to focus on reducing gaps in access, success and progression for under-represented groups, and to improve practice.

We all know the ‘correct’ answers to the above. But if we can truly answer (B) to each of these questions – that is a good starting point for the development of our Access and Participation Plans.

How can a university effectively develop an impactful plan?

A five-year plan enables institutions to take a more strategic view of access and participation mapped more closely to medium-term corporate strategies. To create an environment that will ensure a successful link, adapting some elements of a programme management approach to the development of our Access and Participation Plans could prove helpful.

Adopting a programme management approach means:

  1. Aligning the Access and Participation Plan with the Corporate Strategy:
  • Describing our strategic drivers for Access and Participation
  • Defining the benefits, and value of these benefits to the University
  • Exploring the risks to achieving these benefits.


  1. Leading Change:
  • Engaging all the people that we need to develop the various elements of the Access and Participation Plan, drive initiatives included in the plan, and monitor successful delivery. For access and participation this will include engaging a range of partners.
  • Engaging and involving the people who will be impacted by the plan – the Students.


  1. Envisioning and Communicating a better future:
  • Developing and refining our Access and Participation Vision – as a prerequisite for the Plan, and to ensure ongoing alignment to the Corporate Strategy.
  • Gaining commitment and buy-in to the Vision through ongoing communication.


  1. Focusing on the benefits and threats to them:
  • Being very clear on the benefits that will be realised through the Access and Participation Plan – for students from under-represented groups, student cohorts as a whole, the University and the Community. These benefits will all feed into the development of associated targets and the investment plan to meet the OfS requirements.
  • Keeping management and monitoring of these benefits on the agenda at leadership meetings to maintain a focus on achieving them.


  1. Designing and delivering a product (‘the plan’) that is fit-for-purpose:
  • Using this programme management framework, the development of the Access and Participation Plan is a culmination of all preceding elements, and will help to ensure that the product meets the criteria set out by the OfS.


  1. Learning from Experience:
  • Exploring the successes and learning points from the previous Access and Participation Plan
  • Maintaining the attitude of ‘being a learner’ through the life of the new Access and Participation Plan – and beyond – as a means of evaluating its effectiveness.


All of the elements described above will help in meeting the requirements set out in the OfS guidelines for the development, submission, assessment and monitoring of Access and Participation Plans – due for the 2020/21 Academic Year.

It’s clear that getting the plan right to meet OfS requirements will be challenging – in the short term. But in the long term, thinking about ‘Access and Participation’ in its widest context and the qualities of successful Equality, Diversity and Inclusion that I mentioned at the start won’t it be great when ‘Access and Participation’ is no longer about managing change, but can simply be described as ‘The Way We Do Things around Here’ – Our Culture!

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