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More Learners, More Choices, Less Funding.

On the 26th of March, the Office for Students (OfS) released its latest approach to governing the Uni Connect programme. The new guidance is in response to a month-long consultation that engaged over 350 stakeholders in assessing a number of proposals for how best to manage Uni Connect moving forward. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Uni Connect Transitions to Diverse Educational Pathways Connect

While the programme’s name isn’t changing, its educational remit is. Uni Connect partnerships will now be expected to better prepare learners for post-16 educational pathways. These pathways include apprenticeships, T Levels, further education and vocational colleges and, of course, traditional higher education and university degrees. Many Uni Connect partnerships across the country already provide some level of guidance around non-uni education. However, concerns were raised during the consultation regarding the competitive nature of student recruitment between FEC’s and universities. Although more challenging now, keeping information, advice and guidance (IAG) unbiased will need to remain at the top of the Uni Connect agenda.

2. Young Learners > Life-long Learners

The Uni Connect target audience is changing as well. While there remains a focus on widening participation and increasing educational equality, it is no longer strictly on young people. The OfS have decided that Uni Connect partnerships will be expected to deliver provision for learners aged 19+ who are studying at FEC’s. However, the OfS also decided that Uni Connect funding will be reduced in the years ahead. Consequently, many Uni Connect partnerships have raised concerns about dedicating resources to a broader audience. The expansion of the provision towards older learners, without any expansion for younger learners (or expansion of funding), does align with economic restart plans, but it may feel like it misses the WP mark just a bit. Especially in light of a recent UCAS study showing that 39% of the most advantaged learners in the UK, versus only 27% of the most disadvantaged, begin to identify HE as an option in primary school.

3. The Focal Points are Local Points

Some participants of the OfS consultation cited a level of concern around national duplication of effort, due to the regionalised focus of each partnership. While the OfS noted these concerns, it decided to keep the focus on local areas to allow Uni Connects the flexibility to address their regions’ nuanced educational needs. In our view, this continued regionalisation is reasonable, but calls for greater co-operation and match funding between Uni Connect partnerships, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and Combined Authorities (CAs). Such regional coordination would ensure that we give learners a cohesive view of the educational landscape, allowing them to make informed decisions about their future careers.

Some questions remain after the announcement:

1. How will target learners be identified moving forward?

After deciding that 2021-22 would be a transition year, the OfS deferred the decision about how to select target learners from 2022-23. Discussions are on-going as to whether geographic targeting – based on POLAR quintiles – will continue, or if there will be a shift to ‘target schools’ from ‘target learners.’

2. What will evaluation look like for adult learners?

No guidance has yet been given on how the Uni Connect partnerships will be evaluated for their delivery of adult learner provisions. The OfS noted the significant variety in learning circumstance for the older demographic but indicated that it would be up to each partnership to decide what to deliver and how to do so for at least this next academic year.