Turning up the HEAT on widening participation

The likelihood of a young person progressing to higher education is strongly influenced by the socio-economic background of their family. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to enter university and, of those who do go, many achieve lower outcomes in terms of degree level and employment.

To achieve the Government’s aim of reducing these inequalities, universities carry out a range of widening participation activities with the purpose of increasing participation among this group, and supporting them through their university experience. It is widely acknowledged that robust evaluation of these activities is vital if we are to demonstrate the value of the work being done and ensure best practice in the future.

It is also well known that this type of evaluation is not easy. It requires staff with analytical expertise and access to appropriate data sources. If we want to crack evaluation, we need to work together. Working in silos is less productive and less efficient.

This is where HEAT (Higher Education Access Tracker) plays a key role, already helping 49 member institutions successfully monitor and evaluate their widening participation work.

What is HEAT?

HEAT is a collaborative project owned by member institutions. Currently in the midst of a three-year national roll-out funded by HEFCE, it has a target of 80 members by the end of the project in 2017. At this point the service will continue to operate, funded by subscription fees.

A rich longitudinal dataset underpins its research activity. It builds on a legacy that dates back to 2004, when institutions working together under the then AimHigher South East, decided to collect individual student data for tracking.

We hear calls for the type of evaluation that HEAT facilitates throughout the sector. In a Recent HEFCE Blog post, Dr Lee Eliot Major, Chief Executive of The Sutton Trust, argued that everyone in the sector has a responsibility to investigate whether efforts to widen participation in higher education are having an impact.

HEFCE is already working to promote the collection of this evidence. It is commissioning research and developing its own research, tools and guidance.

Tracking the student life-cycle

As one of HEFCE’s supported projects, HEAT provides member institutions with a database, which records details of the students they engage with in their widening participation work, linking them to the types of activities in which they have participated.

We, at HEAT, then track these students through their student life-course, at Key Stage 4 (GCSE and equivalent), Key Stage 5 (A-level and equivalent), into further education and finally into higher education and the workplace. This longitudinal tracking builds robust evaluative data to assess the impact of involvement in widening participation activities on student outcomes.

To achieve this we work collaboratively with organisations such as HESA, HEFCE, the Department for Education and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, who hold valuable data on widening participation outreach participants. We negotiate the release of these datasets on behalf of all universities in the HEAT membership.

What does the tracking show?

The tracking has allowed HEAT to produce national findings based on empirical evidence. To give a flavour of our analysis, we have found that, of the young people from low-participation neighbourhoods who engaged in a university outreach activity, 32 per cent progressed to HE. This compares favourably with the national progression rate of 25 per cent for people from similar backgrounds and so begins to demonstrate the benefit of widening participation activities.

We found that progression to HE was higher for those who participated in an intensive package of activities than for those who engaged in only one or a few light-touch events. We also found that engagement both before the age of 16 as well as during sixth form is necessary to change the behaviour of those students who are least likely to progress to HE.

Detailed HESA data have also allowed us to monitor the HE performance of widening participation students who have engaged in outreach activities. We can demonstrate that, once in HE, widening participation outreach participants achieve outcomes that are comparable with the overall student population, above the outcomes of those widening participation students without engagement.

New linking with national Key Stage 4 and 5 datasets allows HEAT members to evaluate the impact of their activities on students’ academic attainment while still in school. This pioneering work helps steer the nature of future outreach activities, as either aspiration or attainment raising events, and inform which activities are most beneficial to particular types of participant.

Such analysis will feed into current HEAT research which classifies widening participation students, using variables known to influence progression to HE, such as attainment at 16 years. The breadth of analysis at HEAT demonstrates our commitment to widening participation research.

The value of collaboration

HEAT is a not-for-profit, collaborative organisation, with minimal membership costs. The collaborative nature of the service means that duplication is minimised as data are negotiated, purchased, processed and analysed by the central team and returned to member universities.

This model reduces costs and maximises the funding that remains available for the widening participation activities themselves, while ensuring robust evaluation is in place.

Using a consistent methodology across the membership allows for national level evaluation of ‘what works’ in terms of widening participation, as well as giving universities information on the success of their own activities.

At HEAT we provide members with bespoke analysis and research based on the data they have collected on their participants, so as to minimise the analytical burden placed on the practitioners within the universities who become members.  We also publish national evidence regarding widening participation, evidence that can be found on our website with full reports available on request.

The HEAT team are very keen to work with new partners to share ideas and best practise. If you are from a university and are interested in becoming a member of HEAT, or an organisation interested in working with us to develop our research, please contact us on support@heat.ac.uk.