The Office for Fair Access is not doing enough to push universities to admit more students from poor families or censuring potentially misleading statements about the support available to students, a study claims.
Jonathan Hughes, a lecturer at The Open University, and Marion Bowl, a tutor in the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, say their analysis of university access agreements shows that the sector’s watchdog is “permissive in its approach” by not challenging institutions on unambitious targets or unclear information provided to students.
The report, Official Discourses of ‘Fair Access’: What Do Institutional Statements Tell Us about University Stratification, Differentiation and Market Positioning?, highlights the example of two unnamed research- intensive universities that believe they “should be viewed separately” from the rest of the sector and compared with peers in the Russell Group rather than the sector-wide average. Offa appeared to acquiesce in this belief, the paper says.
“Both downplay their poor performance in widening participation relative to other institutions in their region, while still asserting their commitment to fair access,” Dr Hughes says in the report.
“It seems that the most selective universities do not feel under pressure from Offa to take the ‘determined action’ called for in 2011” by Vince Cable, the business secretary, and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, on improving access.
“Rather they continue to differentiate themselves on the basis of their elite status and to resist comparisons with other universities,” the paper argues. It was scheduled to be presented at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference, held in London between 3 and 5 April, for which Times Higher Education is media partner.
The study - which as well as sector access agreements also reviews public documents produced by eight universities in one English region - criticises Offa’s apparent unwillingness to take universities to task over the information provided to low-income students about potential financial support.
Several institutions “omit reference to possible rationing of scholarships”, while “eligibility and likelihood of success are not distinguished clearly to enable applicants to assess their prospects of financial support”.
“Instead, universities…use financial incentives and own-branded [scholarships] as marketing tools, giving an impression of a generous range of packages of financial assistance,” the study says.
Offa did not appear to “enforce its demand for clarity and transparency of publicly available information about financial support to students from low-income families”, it adds.
“[Offa] has been prepared to sign off on vague statements about student financing and activities targeted at widening participation.”
Both “selective” and “recruiting” universities also seem to have “a cautious and sometimes ambivalent approach to fair access” and were unwilling to voice their commitment to widening participation.
Instead, universities were keener to trumpet their “elite” credentials, with statements on available scholarships used as “window dressing” to reinforce the message of institutions wanting to admit the “best and brightest”.
“In spite of government promises of ‘determined action’ by, and ‘greater powers’ for, Offa, we discern a retreat from the idea of higher education as a vehicle for promoting social justice as the market climate becomes increasingly challenging for universities,” the paper concludes.
“There is a real danger in universities thinking they are just academic businesses and seeing students as customers,” Dr Hughes told Times Higher Education. “Universities and Offa seem to share an ambivalence about pushing forward the role of higher education in furthering social justice,” he added.
The study was based on an analysis of access agreements for 2012-13, which were agreed during the stewardship of the previous Offa director, Sir Martin Harris.
Les Ebdon, who became director of fair access in September 2012 - and whose appointment prompted a political row after he pledged to clamp down on universities that were performing poorly on access - said Offa was now “focusing more closely on the outcomes of institutions’ investment in access measures”.
“We want to see how the money they are spending is helping to shrink the participation gap, particularly at the most selective universities,” he said.
Professor Ebdon added that since becoming director he had emphasised the need for “an evidence-based approach” by institutions on what access programmes worked, while Offa’s “increased resources enable us to better challenge and support institutions in this work”.