by Ruth Squire
In October 2022, as part of a foreword to the Office for Student’s consultation on ‘regulating equality of opportunity in English higher education’, the Director for Fair Access and Participation set out that he expects ‘more, and more impactful, strategic, enduring, mutually-beneficial partnerships with schools and with the third sector’ (OfS, November 2022).
The expectation has carried through into more recent guidance issued by the OfS (OfS, March 2023a), which names the third sector as potential collaborators in supporting school attainment and student outcomes. This is not a new expectation – the OfS, its predecessor organisations, and the DfE have repeatedly stressed the value of collaboration and HE providers (HEPs) collaborating with the ’third sector’ for access and participation – but it does warrant some scrutiny, as it can carry several implicit assumptions about the value and values that the ‘third sector’ can bring to access and participation. In its summary of consultation responses, the OfS notes that some respondents were ‘unsure’ whether third sector collaboration was appropriate (OfS, March 2023b), suggesting that not everyone has the same understanding or enthusiasm around these potential relationships as the OfS.
Questioning the third sector imaginary
The term ‘third sector’ (as opposed to a voluntary, community or charity sector) carries with it a lot of political history and assumptions. Organisations considered ‘third sector’ have been generally assumed to be, in some ways ‘better’ than alternatives in the public or private sectors, whether ethically or in terms of structures that make them more effective at tackling social issues (Macmillan, 2015). These organisations have been assumed to have innovation, effectiveness and (the right) values ‘baked in’ to their organisational structure. These assumptions can become particularly problematic when they are framed in opposition to the work of HEPs, whose widening access work has sometimes been criticised for making slow progress and being informed by institutions’ market interests. Rather than considering these qualities as attributes of ‘types’ of organisations or sectors, it might be better to ask what qualities we need and value in widening access and participation, and how these can be supported in all contexts. Simply ascribing qualities or values, even implicitly, to third sector organisations can frame them either as an ‘add on’ or even antidote to access and participation within HEPs – not particularly collaborative.
The examples of third sector collaboration offered by the OfS and its predecessors have tended to focus on particular ‘types’ even within the third sector – mostly social enterprises and philanthropic organisations. These are often ‘hybrid’ organisations that explicitly combine social and economic value and/or blend public and private sector practices. Among these, the Sutton Trust, with its blended focus on research, lobbying and activity delivery, and a message focused on access to the most elite professions and universities, has become the most prominent. However, the majority of non-HEP access and participation organisations do not have the resources of the Trust, nor is it appropriate for all organisations to follow this blended model of delivery. The presence of such a dominant model of ‘third sector’, which is particularly attractive and well-known among political figures, can create both opportunities and challenges for other third sector organisations, particularly in terms of advancing alternative visions of widening access and collaboration.
If we look wider than this narrow understanding of the ‘third sector’ and how it should operate, then there are a whole range of different organisations that could be and have been collaborators in access and participation. These include campaigning organisations, grassroots community organisations, parent-teacher associations or students’ unions. Collaboration with charitable and/or community organisations around widening access is not new for HEPs. Nor is it a new way of delivering on widening participation aims. However, with a dominant view of what qualifies as ‘third sector’ it is unclear whether these organisations offer the value or values expected by the OfS.
Looking more closely at the capacities and qualities of third sector collaborators can also reveal some assumptions we make about the shape of collaboration and the role of HEPs. Many third sector organisations, even those referenced as exemplars by the OfS, need to collaborate with universities to deliver their missions and to survive. However, they rarely have the security of long-term relationships that can support the effectiveness and innovation that are supposedly their essential characteristics. Examples of existing partnerships have tended to frame third sector organisations as deliverers of activity or consultants, with the HEP in control. What ‘impactful, strategic, enduring and mutually-beneficial’ looks like may require a change from current practice, questioning that power dynamic.
The supposed neutrality and (non-partisan) values of third sector organisations working in widening participation have sometimes made them particularly attractive to political figures and to policy makers, singling these out as examples of good work. Despite values being seen as a positive quality in the work of the third sector, relatively little scrutiny has been placed on values in access and participation practice and policy more broadly. The quality of ‘good people doing good things’ is certainly not unique to the third sector, especially given that they are often the same people and same values as those working in HEPs or even the OfS.
Personal and institutional values have a core role in the enactment of widening participation in all settings. In a survey conducted with widening access professionals in 2021, personal experiences and values were a motivating factor in their roles for all respondents, regardless of the type of organisation they worked for (McCaig, Rainford & Squire, 2022). However, this is not to say that context is not important. Third sector organisations are often materially different to HEPs, not least in their relationship to widening participation policies. In that same survey, there were notable differences in how respondents described their organisations’ motivations, both within and between third sector organisations and HEPs.
There is a growing argument that we need to look more closely at the enactment of widening policy and how it is translated into practice within organisational and national contexts (Rainford, 2020; Benson-Egglenton, 2022). This is as true of third sector organisations working in this space as it is of HEPs (and of the FE colleges, employers and virtual spaces which are also often not included in policy and research). Understanding more about the different contexts in which widening participation is enacted and about those who enact it is an important component in understanding how some of the broader goals of widening participation can be achieved. We also need to pay critical attention to the different roles and capacities of organisations in the widening participation policy space, and their interests. Third sector organisations, just like HEPs, are not neutral by virtue of being charities. Values matter and they offer the potential for meaningful and enduring connections that are not based on organisation ‘type’. If we are to build the type of partnerships the OfS is calling for it will be crucial to move beyond assumptions and develop greater understanding of our similarities and differences .
Dr Ruth Squire is Evaluation and Impact Manager at Leeds Trinity University. Her PhD thesis explored the role of third sector organisations in widening participation policy and practice and she continues to research the enactment of policy, evaluation practice and widening access and participation work.