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On 28 April 2022, TASO (Transforming Access and Student Outcomes) held their annual conference at the British Library. This was exciting not only because it was such an iconic venue, but because this was a chance for those of us involved in TASO, a charity formed during the pandemic (I am a proud member of its Sector Network), to meet face to face.

With the Office for Students (OfS) indicating that more robust evaluation of widening participation (WP) activity is likely to be a requirement for the Access and Participation Plans (APPs) of Higher Education Providers (HEPs), it is perhaps unsurprising that data collection and evaluation was a golden thread that ran throughout the event. As someone who has banged on about the importance of evidence-led practice grounded in robust data, one might expect that I would welcome such propositions. However, I am sceptical that the apparent obsession of the OfS and, to a lesser extent, of TASO with quantitative data risks devaluing the rich narrative that qualitative methods often capture.

John Blake, Director of Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, gave the keynote speech. I am sure I am not alone in raising an eyebrow at the irony of such a role being given to a white male with an Oxbridge (yes, he studied at both institutions) education. To be fair to TASO, they put on an excellent conference and did a good job of ensuring representation in their speakers; TASO’s own Director, Omar Khan, Ibz Mo and Hillary Gyebi-Ababio all made excellent contributions. John was witty, informative and at times surprisingly unguarded. He was clear that the OfS is going to be pushing HEPs much harder on proper evaluation of the projects they are spending their APP budgets on, and he was candid about his scepticism around peer review, which he described as “institutions marking their own homework”.

It wasn’t entirely clear to me what is meant by peer review in this context, but I think it is something very different from what is meant by peer review in the context of journal publications. My suspicion is the type of peer review John was concerned about was internal evaluation of projects as the sole evidence of the success of WP initiatives. In this context, John’s desire to push for external review of how APP money is spent may lead to better ring-fencing of monies for projects that genuinely benefit students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

John was also clearly a fan of mixed methods, which was refreshing in a very quantitative-focused field. For those of us who practise mixed methods, this was reassuring against the worrying backdrop of the OfS hierarchy of evidence, which seems to dismiss the kind of qualitative research which gives voice to those from the same disadvantaged backgrounds. My understanding is that external evaluations of APP activities with a mixed methods approach are therefore likely to be demanded pretty soon. I expect that quantitative data will be privileged, and the dangers of that concern me, but there will necessarily be a space for the qualitative data that tells us ‘why’ even if the quantitative is favoured to tell us the ‘what’.

Ultimately, if it leads to us all doing more of what we know works for the benefit of underrepresented groups, then this can only be a good thing.

The ‘who’ these disadvantaged or underrepresented groups are, and how we identify them, was also a golden thread at the conference. Cue another white man with a degree from Cambridge to explain this. James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust among other things, spoke eloquently on the different ways that disadvantage can be measured. James was dismissive of both POLAR4 and TUNDRA data, preferring ACORN. This is a lot of acronyms, and to many of us means very little, but what is important is that these are all postcode-based means of assessing disadvantage. POLAR measures levels of participation in higher education by location, ACORN categorises locations by socio-economic disadvantage, whereas, according to the OfS, ‘TUNDRA is an enhanced area-based measure which uses individualised data and tracks individuals from Key Stage 4 to higher education’.

These measures are important because they are used by the OfS to set admission targets for HEPs. These measures, however, all focus on elements related to socio-economic class, be it income levels or participation rates in higher education, and this is why the white male dominance of parts of the access and participation industry requires some discussion.

I am a white male, I actually went to school with James Turner, I have a PhD and I work at a Russell Group university, so I’m not critical of those of us born with a Y chromosome to white parents who have done well in our educations; but I am concerned that the whole widening participation agenda is tilted towards ‘white working-class boys’ and away from women and those from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

To be blunt: if we get more white working-class (whatever that means) boys into elite universities, the chances are that they will never be taught by a Black female professor as, according to HESA in 2020/21, just 160 out of 22,855 professors were Black and, according to UCU, the union representing academic staff, in 2018 only 15 Black professors were female. There are many reasons why the myth that white working-class boys are the most disadvantaged group educationally is dangerous, and there is not space to go into it here, but there are two ways in which we can counter this.

The first is to platform more diverse speakers.

The second is to use the data, both quantitative and qualitative, to challenge this erroneous claim.

The need for greater diversity leads neatly into what was for me the third golden thread of the conference – a sense of belonging.

As an intermediate outcome that predicts future success, a sense of belonging is important and the evidence and the perceptions of HEPs demonstrate this. The white, patriarchal environment that Halpin’s Living Black at University report exposed denies that sense of belonging to many of those who study and work in higher education, and this needs urgent attention.

Dr Nick Cartwright is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Leeds and a Senior Advisor at Halpin, the home of experts in Higher Education.