What works best to improve fair access? How can the Office for Fair Access make sure that the whole sector learns from activities and programmes that are making a real difference? And how can we support and challenge universities and colleges to make further progress on fair access, particularly at highly selective universities where the participation gap remains high?
These are some of the questions we have been asking as Offa develops a new strategic plan, which we publish today. In considering what our priorities should be, we have been mindful of the significant progress that has already been made in improving access to higher education - and of the progress that still needs to be made.
Many assumed that the new system of tuition fees would lead to a reverse in the rates of young full-time undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. We now know that the opposite has happened. Greater rates of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are entering higher education than ever before. We’ve seen striking and sustained improvements in participation rates over the last decade – improvements that have accelerated in recent years under our single focus regulation.
In this context, the time is right for us to be increasingly ambitious. Despite the progress we have seen, the participation gaps in higher education remain large. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still two and a half times less likely to enter higher education than their more advantaged peers, and 6.8 times less likely to enter a higher tariff institution, often a vital stepping stone to postgraduate study and the professions. Social mobility will stall if we do not take urgent steps to close this gap.
We have therefore decided to make improving access to universities with the highest entry grades one of our strategic aims. It the first time we have done this. Our target here is to increase participation in such institutions by students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from 3.2 per cent in 2014-15 to 5 per cent by 2019-20. While these numbers may seem small, it is important to recognise that our target seeks to build upon record growth in recent years.
Positive progress is already being made by highly selective universities. Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures show that since 2011 there’s been around a 40 per cent increase in entry rates at such universities by students from disadvantaged backgrounds. At the same time, the talk from highly selective universities on access is changing. They recognise that they have an important role to play in improving fair access, whether that’s through outreach work that helps to increase aspirations, or by getting involved in attainment-raising activities such as sponsoring academies. By 2018-19, highly selective universities predict that they will be spending double the proportion of higher fee income that they spent on this type of activity in 2011-12, confirming a commitment to invest in work that I believe will have a long-term, sustained impact on fair access.
Clearly the greatest challenge for highly selective universities is to address the participation gap. For institutions with more representative student bodies, the challenge will be to further improve outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, making sure that these students get the most from their studies and are well prepared for what comes next. We want universities to focus on the areas where they most need to make progress, and Offa will challenge and support them do so.
A key element of our support will be to play an active role in growing the evidence base and identifying and disseminating good practice. We need to make sure that the £700 million invested annually through access agreements achieves maximum impact, so we’ll be refining our guidance to reflect the latest evidence, and also challenging the sector to place a greater emphasis on the outcomes of their work. And we will be vocal in making the case for the importance of fair access, and in championing the more socially mobile society that our successes will bring.
With universities increasingly taking a more evidence-based approach to their fair access work, the removal of student number controls, and political consensus among the main parties on the importance of fair access, all the ingredients are in place to accelerate progress. I look forward to working with the whole sector to make a real and lasting difference, ensuring that the graduates needed by our economy are people from all backgrounds with the ability to succeed. Fair access matters to all of us and the steps we take now will make a difference for decades to come.