Clear thought about access lost in row (1 of 4)

March 1, 2012

The controversy over Les Ebdon's appointment as director of the Office for Fair Access has obscured the most important question: what is Offa for?

For 2012 entry, it has collected about 0 access agreements. Each includes three main components: bursaries and fee waivers; targets for recruitment from under-represented groups; and activities designed to raise those groups' aspirations and participation levels.

Since 2006, there has been criticism that a multiplicity of institutional bursary schemes confuses students, and there seems to be no convincing evidence that applicants choose where to go on the basis of financial support. For 2012, the position has been exacerbated by the introduction of National Scholarships to supplement the grants available via the student finance system. But there are not enough scholarships for every student with a family income below £25,000, and institutions have devised ways of choosing who will benefit and - through matched funding - by how much. So now there is even more scope for confusion: a national scheme that is not national.

Institutions were all expected to submit "stretching" targets for recruitment from under-represented groups, but the sum of all targets almost certainly exceeds plausible recruitment levels. This will be made worse if it turns out that the students attracted to further education providers (which have no access agreements) come disproportionately from those groups. So there will be failures to meet targets across the sector, not just among institutions that traditionally struggle to recruit from the under-represented.

The vital longer-term task of raising aspirations and school performance to improve social mobility is now left to 0 uncoordinated programmes. Some institutions will do it well and some will not.

The financial basis for Offa's work is that institutions contribute some of their fee income to promote a nationally desirable policy. The use of that money should change.

Institutions should continue to contribute part of their fees above £6,000 to widening participation. The amount they provide should vary according to their success in recruiting from the relevant groups, just as Offa expects now. But the penalty for underperformance would not be the "nuclear option" of a fee limited to £6,000, but rather a reasonable requirement to contribute more to widen participation.

Some of the money should be used to give scholarships to all eligible students, preferably in a scheme merged with the grants system: every grant could be called a "National Scholarship". The rest would be used to create a better-coordinated programme to promote higher education in under-represented areas and to support underachieving schools. This might be done through local consortia involving higher, further and secondary education providers: perhaps we should call it "Aimhigher". That scheme was not perfect, but coordinating its best practices would be much better than 0 individual approaches.

The government claims to want to reduce bureaucracy: abolishing 0 access agreements would be a good start. Ebdon is a champion of social inclusion and should persuade the government to do it better.

John Craven, Vice-chancellor, University of Portsmouth

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