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Office for Students: Independent evaluation of Uni Connect’s impact on outcomes

Uni Connect, made up of partnerships between universities, colleges and local organisations, was launched in 2017 with the aim of reducing the participation gap between the most and least represented groups, and developing a stronger evidence base on ‘what works’ in higher education (HE) outreach. Since its outset, 29 university-led partnerships have been funded to deliver activities to learners in Years 9 to 13 to help them understand the benefits and realities of HE and make informed decisions. The CFE Research evaluation of the programme, commissioned by the OfS, uses findings from annual learner surveys: the most recent conducted in 2021/22 (known as wave 4), involving 42,466 respondents, and a sub-sample of just over 4,000 learners who completed the survey in 2021/22 and in 2019/20. It explores the elements of Uni Connect that are associated with better knowledge and positive attitudes towards HE. It also examines the extent to which Uni Connect has increased learners’ knowledge and attitudes since 2019-20.

The full report on the evaluation can be found here


  • Multi-intervention approaches are recommended. There are positive associations between key programme characteristics, particularly engagement in different types of activity and specific interventions, particularly campus visits and mentoring, and a number of reported outcomes for the 2021/22 cohort (p5)
  • Teenagers eligible for free school meals (FSM), learners with a disability and those who are the first in their family to go to HE consistently report lower outcomes than higher achievers and those who are networked with people who have HE experience. These groups were also more likely to have been impacted by Covid 19 and to report gaps in HE advice, information and guidance (AIG)
  • Most learners perceived that they had some knowledge of HE and agreed that they were motivated and had the capability to succeed prior to engaging in the programme, so the level of change in learner outcomes is limited (p5)
  • The people learners talk to and are influenced by appear to have a significant effect on their perceptions of HE and their ability to fit in and succeed. Key influencers have contributed to changes in learners’ outcomes and have shaped current knowledge, perceptions and intentions (p7)
  • Engaging key influencers in outreach is essential and could help to mitigate the risks to access to HE. As well as providing information on the HE offer and practical considerations such as cost and financial support, influencers have a role in supporting and encouraging learners to believe in themselves and that HE is an option for them. Staff development and parent and carer interventions should seek to address this (p7)
  • The role of personalised interventions such as mentoring could be growing in importance, given the emerging evidence that they are effective for developing confidence, resilience and positive perceptions of HE. This is particularly the case when interventions are delivered by people with whom learners identify and who reflect their own characteristics (p7)
  • The findings suggest that support to improve learners’ self-efficacy is important for challenging negative perceptions of HE, which can be more prevalent among Uni Connect target learners (p7)
  • Institutions should aim to ensure that AIG focuses on the financial support available (in addition to the costs of HE) and the non-financial (as well as financial) benefits of HE to ensure that concerns about cost do not deter learners (p8)
  • Providers should explore the factors that create negative perceptions of HE among males, disabled learners, first in family and those who are more economically-disadvantaged, and deliver targeted interventions to challenge them (p8)
  • Work with schools and colleges to support attainment-raising to ensure learners achieve the level required to fulfil their potential and realise their ambitions (p8)

Implications for governance:

The Uni Connect programme provides collaborative approaches by universities, colleges and other organisations to support young people from underrepresented groups in four priority areas: Targeted outreach, strategic outreach, attainment raising and signposting. Since 2017, it has received £350 million in funding. A further £30 million has been allocated from August 2023 to July 2024.

The 29 partnerships involve universities across England and may well be familiar to governors as part of the important work that institutions are doing to improve access to higher education.

But despite the funding, hard work and effort that has gone into the programme over the years, the independent evaluation demonstrates the difficulty in tracking participants over time and in measuring, in any concrete way, the direct impact of outreach work on the complex series of factors involved in whether young people apply to university or not.

The report states that “there is no association between engagement in Uni Connect and change in the likelihood of a learner applying to HE”. It also points out that as most learners in the programme perceived that they had some knowledge of HE and agreed that they were motivated and had the capability to succeed prior to engaging in the programme, the level of change in learner outcomes is limited. Elsewhere it says that “Uni Connect has not been shown to contribute to changes in learners’ outcomes”.

The evaluation does however point to where involvement in some activities has led to more positive survey responses. It also outlines those learners – first in the family to go on to HE, learners with disabilities and those who have been eligible for free school meals - who are at particular risk of not developing an accurate understanding of HE, including the costs and financial support available, and the potential return on the investment in HE.

There are a number of important take-aways that will be of interest to governors. Campus visits stand out as one of the few activities with a provable impact. The report says that they are “the only activity or programme characteristic that is positively associated with the likelihood that a learner will apply to HE aged 18 or 19.”

The evaluation also suggests that mentoring can be effective in imparting AIG, improving confidence and developing positive perceptions of HE

With that in mind, it recommends a multi-intervention approach, for instance, embedding personalised support, such as mentoring and masterclasses, with lighter touch activities, such as campus visits.

Governors may want to assure themselves that campus visits are sufficiently high up on their institution’s WP agenda, along with other interventions that the report suggests are having a positive impact. Contributing to the cost of visits could be something to consider, if it is not already a feature, given that the report highlights that first in family, those with disabilities and teenagers eligible for free school meals are less likely to be able to afford such activities.

Role models and key influencers, whether they be teachers, career advisors or parents/carers are an important element in the jigsaw, according to the evaluation.

Keeping them updated, involved and motivated is important, to ensure they have the information they need to support young people, particularly on the financial aid available and the financial and career benefits that completing a degree can bestow, but also on the wider benefits of going to university.

On this, the survey findings show that most respondents believe that HE can lead to a good career and help them professionally, but are less persuaded that HE will broaden their horizons and improve their social lives, and this is particularly true of disadvantaged teenagers.

In conclusion, while the evaluation raises important questions about the effectiveness of Uni Connect, it usefully highlights a number of approaches that do appear to have a positive impact on raising aspirations and widening access, and which university leaders and governors may therefore wish to ensure are part of their institutions’ overall approach.

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