Widening participation

What are Access and Participation Plans?

You may have heard different universities talk about their ‘Access and Participation Plans’ (or APPs). In a nutshell, APPs are documents that universities produce which set out how they are working to improve equality of opportunity for their students. This blog takes a look at how teachers, advisers and the students they support can engage with university APPs.

An overview of APPs

In England, the higher education sector is regulated by the Office for Students (or OfS). OfS regulations stipulate that every university in England must produce an APP and have this approved by the OfS if they wish to charge the maximum tuition fee (which, at the time of writing, is £9,250 per year for UK-domiciled undergraduates). The OfS describes APPs as follows:

“Access and participation plans set out how higher education providers will improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education.”

You may also have heard of ‘Access Agreements’ which were the predecessor to APPs prior to their introduction in 2019.  

APPs are centred on the issue of widening participation in HE. However, the quote above illustrates that they focus not just on how universities will get underrepresented students though the door in the first place, but also on ensuring that students are successful on their degree courses and progress to positive destinations afterwards. In theory, once an APP is in place it is supposed to last for five years. In practice, regulators can change their minds about what they want from APPs within this five year period and then ask universities to amend their APPs.

What sorts of things do APPs tend to focus on?

The OfS sets out certain key priorities that they expect universities to focus on in their APPs. For example, in 2018 targets were set for the sector as a whole to reduce gaps in entry rates between the most and least represented groups at higher tariff providers, to reduce the gap in degree outcomes between white and black students and to reduce the gap in degree outcomes between disabled and non-disabled students. If you’re curious to see how different universities are performing on some of these measures, you can take a look at the Office for Students’ APP data dashboard

How to read a university APP

The OfS publishes every approved APP on its website for members of the public to read. You might find it useful to take a look at some APPs to help you to understand how different universities are supporting equality of opportunity for the young people you are advising. Having said this, the reality is that APPs are very long documents containing a lot of technical jargon. Each APP is roughly 30 pages in length and it’s hard to imagine any busy teacher or careers adviser having the necessary time and/or inclination to read one.

However, there are some things you may be able to glean quite quickly by having a quick skim through an APP.

APPs are usually split into three broad sections. In section 1, the university presents some statistics about how they are doing so far. This usually includes presentation of different charts and graphs. In section 2, the university sets itself some targets for improvement and then in section 3 there is a bit more detail about how these targets are going to be achieved. You may find that the best section to look at is section 2, since there are usually only a handful of targets and so this will give you an insight of what the university is most focussed on improving. Here are some examples of APP targets from some of our university partners (these are for the period 2020-2025):

University of Birmingham: Reduce the gap between the number of students we admit from the most (POLAR quintile 5) and least (POLAR quintile 1) represented groups to a ratio of 5:1 (from 7.4:1) by 2025
University of Leeds: Close unexplained gap between proportion of BAME students attaining a 2:1 compared with proportion of White students attaining 2:1 or above from 12.7% in 2017/2018 to 5.5% in 2024/2025
University of Cambridge: Admit 69.1% of all UK resident students from state-sector schools and colleges by 2024/25

You’ll notice that these targets tend to tie in with some of the OfS key priorities set out above. 

What you can expect in future

More recently, the OfS have set out some new priorities that they expect universities to be focusing on in the future in their APPs. One of these is the expectation that universities will partner more with schools to help to raise the attainment of young people. When universities publish their next APPs, you may well see them setting targets around engaging with schools and raising attainment. Over the next few years, you should keep your eye out for any opportunities that are available to partner with universities to raise attainment, since this is likely to be an area of increased activity and focus.

The OfS will also be asking universities to make their APPs more accessible to a wider audience, including students, teachers and parents. This may mean in future it is easier to find information about what universities are doing to support equality of opportunity, without having to take the time to wade through a number of long documents.


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