Elite universities ‘will need 100 years’ to hit OfS access goals

Expansion of places and radical changes to admissions required or England’s most selective universities may face regulator’s penalties, analysis suggests

December 12, 2019
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It will take almost a century for elite universities to hit the new access targets set by England’s regulator, based on current rates of progress, according to a report.

An analysis published by the Higher Education Policy Institute finds that it will take 96 years for the most selective universities in England to raise the participation rate for students from the least advantaged areas to match the existing participation rate for students from the most advantaged areas.

The Office for Students has said that “higher tariff” universities must eliminate the gap by 2038-39 and they must almost halve the gap in entry rates for young students from the most and the least privileged neighbourhoods over the next six years.

The Hepi report warns that universities will have to “embrace a cultural shift” if they are to reach these targets.

The figures suggest that elite universities will need to admit an extra 19,400 18-year-old students from the least advantaged areas each year to equal the current participation rate of 18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas. “That is only a little less than the entire undergraduate population across all years of study at Oxbridge,” the Hepi report says.

If the number of degree places were not allowed or able to expand, places for advantaged pupils would have to be cut by as much as 10,000, a third of their current annual intake, to meet the targets, the report adds.

“This is even on the most conservative assumptions,” according to Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter and co-author of the report.

“The OfS has set the most ambitious targets ever for widening access. It is clear that they are serious about this and will use their teeth in ways they haven’t before,” he told Times Higher Education. “If universities aren’t progressing towards these targets, they will likely see financial penalties.”

Professor Elliot Major said the most pressing and immediate action that universities could take would be lowering grade offers for students from non-privileged backgrounds. He said English universities should emulate Scottish universities, which present a standard offer and a lower offer as part of their entry requirements.

English universities are making progress with contextualised offers, but they need to be “more upfront and systematic”, Professor Elliot Major said.

The report’s authors recommend several other ways that could help universities hit their access targets, including using random allocations for students over a minimum A-level grade threshold, moving to a post-qualification application system and the creation of a “social mobility ranking” that measures outcomes for students.

They add that the less selective universities have been doing “much of the heavy lifting” in regard to widening access and that more selective universities could learn from them.

“It’s not that elite institutions are the only ones [that must improve], but they have the biggest challenge”, Professor Elliot Major said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Perhaps that is the natural rate? It seems just as unfair to punish those who are not disadvantaged since they did not choose their position any more than the disadvantaged did.

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