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Opportunities realised: a widening access programme in action

June 2019

The Institute for Employment Studies' Matthew Williams and Emma Pollard explain how the Realising Opportunities programme has supported disadvantaged young people into higher education

Around one in three participants in the Realising Opportunities widening access programme obtain a place at leading research-intensive universities - a substantially higher progression rate than other similar outreach students. Nearly half of these felt that they would not have been able to take up their place but for their participation in Realising Opportunities.

What follows are some of the key findings from the evaluation of the Realising Opportunities (RO) programme, which has been undertaken over the past three years by researchers at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC).

A model of success

To date, nine cohorts of students have participated in the programme (the tenth was recruited at the start of the 2018/19 academic year) since it started in 2009/10. They have been tracked through the programme and into and through university with surveys at four time points, and analysis of programme management information and national data from UCAS and HESA.

The researchers have been working closely with the central RO team at Newcastle University, building an evidence base and evaluating the impact of the programme against a robust evaluation framework. Our analysis shows that the programme and partnership has gone from strength to strength and offers a model of a successful way to engage with and support disadvantaged young people to expand and achieve their HE aspirations.

The programme is a resounding success and has an impressive impact on participants, with results well above those found for individuals who participated in alternative outreach activities, and even for all students including those from the most advantaged backgrounds.

The programme has increased HE application rates, broadened horizons and enabled greater levels of HE enrolment

The results

1. The programme has recruited the volume of 'most able, least likely' students from the targeted backgrounds that it set out to engage with:

  • 6,059 young people to date have started the programme (cohorts 1 to 9)
  • 99% of these have eight or more GCSE passes at A*-C/9-4 grades
  • 91% have parents with no experience of higher education
  • 66% come from areas with the lowest rates of HE participation
  • 28% were eligible for free school meals.

2. It has increased understanding of the HE landscape and university life among participants helping them to be university ready. By the end of the programme:

  • 88% knew more about how to apply to university
  • 72% knew more about course options
  • 71% felt their study skills had improved
  • 70% of participants felt they knew more about what a research-intensive university was
  • 68% knew more about the costs and financial support offered
  • 65% knew more about how university compares to school
  • 58% felt their self-confidence had improved
  • 57% knew more about what student life is like
  • 46% felt they were better prepared for living away from home
  • 44% felt they were better prepared for managing their finances.

3. The programme has increased HE application rates, broadened horizons and enabled greater levels of HE enrolment. Of the most recent cohorts to be tracked into HE:

  • 84% of participants applied to university at the end of Year 13 (which is double the overall proportion of 18-year-olds who apply to university) and of these, 89% applied to a research intensive institution
  • 63% felt the programme had been important in encouraging them to go to university
  • 67% started university at aged 18 (which is again more than double the overall participation rate for 18 year olds, and significantly higher than that for young people who participated in different outreach activities)
  • 30% attended research-intensive universities (compared with 26% of young people who participated in different outreach activities)
  • 89% studied away from their local university, and they travelled further on average to go to university than students from low socio-economic groups.

4. Across the first six cohorts, which contained almost 3,200 programme starters of which around 1,000 attended research-intensive universities, up to 430 students who attended a RO partner university felt that they would not have been able to take up that place without the reduced offer (of up to 2 A-level grades lower than the standard offer).

5. It has prepared individuals for a successful HE experience and thus supported retention and HE outcomes:

  • 96% stayed on their course (compared with an average of 94% across all students)
  • 80% obtained a First Class or Upper Second class degree (compared with 76% across all students)
  • 68% entered graduate employment or took up further study (which is equal to the national picture).

The partnership has developed a single, nationally supported entry route that provides information and support to make informed choices about HE

Long-term commitment to sharing

The programme is a unique collaboration of leading English universities that have been working together since 2012 to promote progression to research intensive institutions among able students from under-represented groups. It therefore predates National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) consortia or outreach hubs, which began in 2017, and National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO), which ran from 2014-2016).

Each of the RO universities in the partnership has made a long-term commitment to sharing their practice in widening participation.1 The programme is aimed at students in years 12 and 13, who have good academic attainment but also come from disadvantaged backgrounds - those 'most able but least likely' to go to university.

The partnership has developed a single, nationally supported entry route that provides information and support to make informed choices about HE, delivers online support from experts and peers including current undergraduate students, and supports skill development and networking. It involves an online study module, an assessed research project, national conference and local events such as taster days, masterclasses and residential summer schools, and online support.

Successful completion of the programme can also result in an alternative offer of up to two A-level grades lower than the standard offer (and so works like a Compact scheme).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects


  1. RO partners are University of Birmingham, University of Exeter, Goldsmiths University of London, King's College London, University of Leeds, University of Leicester, University of Liverpool, Newcastle University, Queen Mary University of London, University of Manchester, University of Sheffield, University of Sussex, UCL, University of Warwick, and University of York.

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