April 1st marked one year of TASO becoming an independent charity. To mark our birthday, I would like to offer some thank yous, some reflections and some links to recent and future work that shows how much we’ve achieved in our first year.

The idea of a ‘What Works Centre’ in higher education dates at least to 2017, a key recommendation of the government’s Social Mobility Advisory Group’s final report. By 2019 TASO had been set up through a partnership between King’s College London, Nottingham Trent University and the Behavioural Insights Team, with the intention of becoming an independent charity in due course.

My first thank you is then to these three partners, who we continue to work with closely. I was appointed as Director in March 2020, just before the onset of a global pandemic that would have huge consequences for economies, governments and of course every person on the planet. The unexpected challenges of setting up a charity in such an environment meant that our independence was only confirmed by 1 April 2021.

I particularly want to thank my colleagues for being so resilient and committed over this period. Most of us had never worked together before the pandemic, and there were definitely challenges along the way as universities and colleges were required to adapt as a response to the pandemic, from teaching and learning to summer schools. In such a context, the amount of outputs and activities we have delivered in the last year or so has been impressive, with our website outlining our many resources, reports, toolkit and guidance.

In addition to my colleagues, I also want to thank TASO’s board for the careful and insightful oversight of our work, and for ensuring our vision is delivered. Our funder, the Office for Students, has been responsive and supportive, and we appreciate their commitment to us as an organisation and to our team. TASO also has a significant number of key supporters – through our Academic Advisory Panel, Evaluation Advisory Panel, Theme Working Groups and Sector Network – who ensure that our work is robust and relevant for those working in and of course those studying in higher education.

Although many in the higher education sector were aware of TASO’s setup, another key challenge for us was deepening  our relationships across an institutionally and geographically diverse sector. With limited travel during the pandemic, we have been unable until recently to reach out to a lot of people across higher education institutions (and charities). Without this buy-in, support and feedback from the sector, TASO cannot deliver on its ambitious aim of tackling inequalities in higher education.

However, we have recently embarked on a number of regional events in England, including in the North West, East Midlands and London, and will be delivering further such events in the coming months in other regions (and hopefully in Wales and Scotland too).

We have found not just that the sector is keen to work with us, but also that in-person meetings offer an opportunity for joint discussion and learning in a way that online events do not always achieve. At the same time, what was initially viewed as a barrier has also opened up benefits: online events reduce the cost and time for people to attend, with our various webinars and our first conference in April 2021 attracting a large number of participants across the country.

We are therefore building on this experience and learning for what we are calling TASO Conference Week which will commence on April 25th, ending with our first in-person conference, held in the British Library in London on the 28th of April. We have an excellent line up of speakers and are looking forward to seeing many of you in person. The event will also be streamed, so that we can ensure that those who can’t travel will still be able to follow the discussions on the day.

In addition, we are planning two further online events to ensure our many partners and stakeholders are able to benefit from and feed into our work. We are also hosting an additional regional event in the West Midlands. We welcome feedback for those who attend in person or who participate in these events online.

TASO’s first birthday is also a time to highlight  just how many activities – reports, guidance, events and more – we are about to produce. While it has taken a bit longer for us to find our first steps as an independent charity, we are running into our second year to deliver a large number of high quality outputs.

I want to thank our many partners, supporters, trustee board and team for just how much effort and commitment they’ve put into our first year. If raising a child takes a village, tackling the longstanding and persistent inequalities in higher education will take all of us to work together so that every young person has the opportunity to learn, enjoy and succeed, in whatever or wherever they want to study.