QAA Access to HE Conference – What does “access” actually mean?

This year’s QAA Access to HE Diploma annual conference was opened with a powerful keynote speech from Shakira Martin (Head of Student Experience at Rose Bruford College; College of the Future Commissioner; Founder at The Class of 2020 #DigiProm; former NUS president; and former mature student to list but a few of her accomplishments). She challenged conference delegates with the definition of ‘access’: “the means or opportunity to approach or enter a place.”* and questioned the choice inherent within the definition.
Shakira shared that most educational institutions focus on providing opportunities for students from underrepresented student populations, but without putting in place additional support, many students do not have the means to engage in those opportunities. Additional former student speakers throughout the conference built on this by sharing the barriers they faced as adult learners: the financial cost of study; the difficulties involved in securing reliable care for dependents; the logistical challenges of travelling to a place of study; the lack of experience with higher education within their support networks and communities; fear of failure and/or embarrassment; and the lack of understanding around key academic skills required for successful educational outcomes. 
What does this mean for Access to HE Diplomas?

The Access to HE Diploma is a life changing qualification that provides tens of thousands of students the opportunity to access higher education across the country. In 2020-21, 23,865 adults entered higher education after completing an Access to HE Diploma.** The Diploma is designed to give students the means to academically succeed, with study skills embedded throughout the course. At CAVA, all of our Access to HE Diplomas contain a dedicated HE study skills unit so students can develop academic writing, reading, presenting, referencing, and critical thinking skills. There is also some provision to reduce financial barriers to studying: adults can apply for the Advanced Learner Loan for the course fees, with a guaranteed loan “write off” once students complete a higher education course. 
Shakira’s redefinition of ‘access’ does highlight areas that could be strengthened so that our Access to HE students have both the opportunity and means to engage in education. We invite our providers to reflect on the following aspects of providing the means:
  • Student bursaries: adults studying at Level Three can fall between the cracks of student support - providers often have excellent support in place for 16 to 19 years and for adult higher education students, however, Access to HE students do not fit either category. 
  • Support services: one of the attendees at the QAA conference suggested that providers could consider setting up a college creche for the children of students. This could address the needs of both students who need support with childcare, and provide valuable work experience opportunities for students undertaking childcare studies. 
  • Course delivery: the timing and location of provision can greatly impact students’ ability to engage in their courses. Working in collaboration with their students, many CAVA providers have adjusted their delivery hours to fit around school pick-up and drop-off times; evening and weekend delivery for those working full-time; and offering hybrid delivery to allow students to catch up on learning where they could not attend.  
  • Catch up services: Shakira shared that a key reason for students dropping out is the fear and embarrassment of falling behind after an unplanned break in learning. In our annual survey, our students often praise the dedication and support of their Access to HE teams who go above and beyond to keep them on track with their studies even when life gets in the way. 

At CAVA, we look to share good practice among our providers through our Retention Handbook and case studies, which can be found in the CAVA Members’ Area. On an annual basis, we reinvest our surplus funds into special projects to support our members’ student outcomes. For example, in 2020-21, we created our COVID-19 College Support Grants to support our providers’ initiatives to relieve the impact of the pandemic on student retention and achievement. The grants helped fund 725 additional teaching/pastoral hours, 87 digital devices, 14 WiFi dongles, specialist software, wellbeing support, and additional resources for our Access to HE students. This year we are piloting our CAVA Community Pitch which integrates entrepreneurship skills, community action, and environment sustainability into our HE study skills units. We will continue to reflect as an AVA and a membership to explore how we can collectively improve both the opportunity and means for our Access to HE students.
*Definition provided by Google’s English dictionary, in collaboration with Oxford Languages.

**Data source: QAA Key Statistics 2020-21