Travel Diary: Ideas Lab, London

Helen Drummond, our Director of School and College Engagement, reflects on a stimulating day’s discussion at the first of our Ideas Labs, held among the glorious surroundings of the Royal Veterinary College in London.


For anyone unfamiliar with the Royal Veterinary College’s building, nestled between Camden and Euston, you are in for a treat. It’s a beautiful building, packed with history, not to mention skeletons of elephants, ostriches, sloths and some live ponies and sheep. It’s a veritable treasure trove, yet with some of the most sensitive recent renovations it’s clear you are in a modern, global institution.

RVC was the host of our first Ideas Lab today, a session for WP practitioners from around the country to come together to celebrate, reflect and discuss the work they are doing with schools.

After more than 20 years of partnership working between HEIs and schools/colleges, it’s clear that there are many effective, successful approaches to widening participation. In fact, last year’s NCOP report recognised many of these successes, not least the 1,200 schools across the country engaged in activities.

It also noted that ‘bespoke programmes’ were particularly effective at engaging schools and colleges, but that there were challenges in implementing them.

So the idea behind today’s Ideas Lab was simple: make time and space for people involved in these activities to reflect on recent initiatives, share successes and the thinking behind them, and identify ways to ensure sustainability. As we all receive public funds to run most of our activities, we believe it’s important to share.


We looked at student events, teacher CPD and how to create a sustainable offering. For each session we demonstrated one of our own activities and asked for critique: what did people like, what could be improved.

We considered what the guiding principles should be for impactful student activities and outstanding teacher CPD, and we’ll use the all the feedback to create a new ‘Progression Roadmap’ tool for WP practitioners, which we’ll share once we’ve finished our tour of the country.

It’s a real treat, and a rare privilege, to have the time and space to come together to talk, interact, share, and try to understand the schools, students and families we want to serve. Absolutely everybody said they found the day useful, and their highlights were as varied as the attendees themselves.

Leaving the elephant skeletons behind in one of London’s smaller HE gems, our guests, a varied mix of representatives from University WP departments, NCOPs and FE colleges from around the south of England, have hopefully made some new contacts, reflected on their own work and shared some good practice, and learned about how to better communicate their offer to schools.

We’re running two more Ideas Labs in early April, in Manchester on 1st April and Bristol on 2nd April. A few tickets remain - see our Ideas Labs page for more information and how to book.

A warm welcome for new guidance to help care-experienced young people access HE

The Department for Education has just published guidance for higher education (HE) providers on how to better support care leavers in getting to and finishing university

We know that young people who are care-experienced are often vulnerable and find the transition to HE extremely difficult as they may not have the support networks that other young people rely on when making decisions and applications to HE.

We’re a Statement of Intent signatory to the Government’s Care Leaver Covenant (CLC) and warmly welcome this guidance. We look forward to working with institutions to develop ways to increase the number of care-experienced students who access higher education, that when they do get in to HE they get the support they need, and ultimately a successful transition to independence.

Celebrating the value of apprenticeships


This week is National Apprenticeships Week, which aims to celebrate the impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers and the economy.

Research by the Sutton Trust found that the best apprentices – those with a level 5 qualification or higher – will earn £50,000 more in their lifetime than someone with an undergraduate degree from a university outside of the Russell Group.

We really believe in the value of apprenticeships as an alternative to university and a great choice for many young people. We’ve seen this for ourselves: Reshma has been part of our finance team since last summer, and has been working with us while studying for her accountancy qualifications.

Reshma studied Pharmaceutical Science at the University of Portsmouth and worked in the health sector for five years in various roles from consultations to dispensing medication. She wanted a change of career and began her journey in accounting last year.

We caught up with Reshma to see why she the idea of an apprenticeship appealed to her:

“I began my apprenticeship with Causeway in July 2018 and have never looked back.”

“I chose the apprentice route because it allowed me to gain the skills, experience and qualifications I wanted whilst earning a wage. I enjoy being responsible for the purchase and sales invoices ensuring all payments are made and received on time.”

“I feel like a valued member of the team, working alongside the Finance Manager/CEO and the wider team to ensure the smooth running of the organisation.”

“This apprenticeship has allowed me to gain an insight into what working in finance is like and allowed me to utilise my theoretical knowledge in a practical way. After completion, I hope to continue to work towards becoming a Chartered Accountant.”

It’s been so valuable having Reshma with us - and great to see first-hand how real-world experience and study can combine to provide benefits not just for organisations that want to share expertise and provide opportunities to learn, but also for those who wish to study.

Welcoming the establishment of the Evidence and Impact Exchange


We welcome the announcement today from the Office for Students (OfS) that King’s College London, Nottingham Trent University and the Behavioural Insights Team have been appointed to run the Evidence and Impact Exchange (EIX) – a ‘What Works Centre’ to promote access, success and progression in higher education (HE) for underrepresented groups of students.

HE should be a route open to all young people, irrespective of background. But we have a big and persistent social mobility problem in the UK: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are half as likely to progress to HE as their peers.

To address this gap, universities submit an access and participation plan to the OfS detailing initiatives they will undertake to widen participation, and commit a proportion of their fee income to funding this vital activity. This amounts to around £860m across the sector, representing about 2.7% of total HE expenditure. It is vital that this money is spent well.

The purpose of the EIX is to be a national repository for evidence on the impact of approaches to access and participation in HE, and to ensure that the most effective approaches are recognised and shared. By collating existing research, identifying gaps in current evidence and generating its own research to fill those gaps, the EIX will play a critical role in disseminating accessible information and advice to decision makers across the HE sector.

As a charity that works to ensure that more young people from underrepresented groups access and succeed in HE, we rigorously measure our impact. We know that our programmes are getting thousands of young people into and through HE who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. We, and our colleagues in the sector, welcome the opportunity to contribute our evidence of impact to the EIX and to learn from what others in the sector are doing well.

Together with the OfS’s new proposals for regulating access and participation plans and their forthcoming evidence and evaluation strategy, the EIX will elevate what works in widening participation so that the best approaches are adopted, funded and scaled. This is a transformative moment for the sector and one that should be celebrated.

We hope the Augar panel and the government’s post-18 education funding review are watching these developments closely.

With so much focus on impact, now is not the time to turn our backs on the funding the sector needs to do this work well. We re-iterate our call for the government to make a public commitment to protecting this funding.

Nathan Sansom, CEO, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus-PEF

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

Johnny Rich, CEO, Push

John Craven, CEO, upReach

Rae Tooth, CEO, Villiers Park

The danger of fee cuts for social mobility

Joint Statement by the Russell Group and social mobility charities on the dangers of a university funding cut

The Government’s review of post-18 education and funding is expected to report shortly. It has been widely speculated that the advisory panel led by Philip Augar could recommend sweeping changes, including a cut to tuition fees. If the Government does not replace the lost income, funding for higher education will be significantly reduced.

We are concerned that the progressive elements of the current student finance system will be chipped away and the proposed reforms could make disadvantaged students worse off. While there is still work to do in ensuring young people from all walks of life have equal access to a university education, recent years have seen important progress with a record proportion of young people now entering higher education, including a record proportion from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities, often working in partnership with third sector organisations, are driving innovative and effective schemes to make UK campuses more inclusive and diverse.  We call on Ministers to help ensure recent social mobility gains are not sent into reverse.

It may sound counterintuitive to suggest that lower tuition fees could harm social mobility, but the reasons are threefold:

  • If tuition fees are reduced and Government does not make up the shortfall, universities will have significantly less funding and will in turn have to reduce student places. This would amount to a de facto cap on student numbers. When student places are restricted, disadvantaged students suffer most. 

  • We could face a sharp drop in the money available for vital schemes which encourage underrepresented students to start a degree and support them through their studies.

  • A fee cut primarily benefits graduates who earn more, who will end up contributing less to the cost of their education than they do now.

Since higher fees were introduced and student number controls started to be removed, numbers of the most disadvantaged students going to university have increased by almost a third. It is therefore welcome that the Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, recently confirmed he is “proud to be a member of the Conservative Party that…removed the cap on student numbers”. But while no government is likely to restrict the number of people able to enter higher education directly, reductions in the number of places will be inevitable if fees are cut and the overall money available to universities is reduced. Ministers should go further and explicitly rule out a de facto cap on student numbers. 

On average, across the country, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than their classmates to go to university and do not benefit from the same networks and support when they do. This year, Russell Group universities will direct £265m into programmes to address these gaps, working with charities, schools and communities in every region and nation of the UK. As a whole, the sector will invest £900m. We want this money to be used as effectively as possible and to build up strong evidence to show which interventions works best. But a fee cut to £7,500, for instance, would wipe out much of this spending. If the Treasury cuts fees it should provide an enduring guarantee that the lost income will be made up in full, with meaningful assurances it will rise with demand.

Finally, evidence indicates that any deterrent effect of higher fees is outweighed by progressive arrangements for loan repayments. Young people have not been put off from entering higher education in increasing numbers, including those from worse off homes. At present, no fees are paid up front; students only ever repay in line with their earnings; and any outstanding balance is written off after thirty years. The focus should be on providing disadvantaged students with the academic and admissions support they need to get in to university and adequate maintenance when they are there. To help, maintenance grants should be reintroduced for the students who need them most.

In summary:

  • Russell Group universities and a coalition of third sector social mobility organisations are calling on Ministers to ensure the Government’s review of Post-18 education and funding does not damage efforts to make UK campuses more inclusive and diverse.

  • We urge Ministers to explicitly rule out any de facto cap on student numbers, which would hurt poorer students most.

  • If the Treasury cuts tuition fees it should give an enduring guarantee that the lost income will be made up in full and will rise with demand.

  • To help with the cost of living, maintenance grants should be reintroduced for students who need them most.  

Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO, Russell Group

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

John Craven, CEO, upReach

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus

Johnny Rich, CEO, Push

Nathan Sansom, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Rae Tooth, CEO, Villiers Park