English universities must improve their efforts to ensure that under-represented students are able to progress and succeed even after being accepted on to courses, the new director for fair access and participation has urged.
As the Office for Students prepares to take on its regulatory role, Chris Millward has stressed that “a key priority” in his new position would be to place “at least as much emphasis” on improving student success rates – reducing dropout rates and improving students’ chances of achieving a good degree regardless of their background – as on widening student access in the first instance.
Outlining a new regulatory plan for access and participation published by the body, Mr Millward said: “We expect every [college and university] to improve in terms of access, participation and progress year on year and that’s because we feel we’re quite a long way from where we should be.”
The most recent analysis conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, where Mr Millward has been director of policy, highlights that students from the least advantaged backgrounds are 2.3 times less likely to attend university than those with the most privileged upbringings – a figure that has changed very little in the past five years.
But increasing tuition fee costs and the introduction of the teaching excellence framework has enforced a sector-wide shift in focus towards student experience, with increasing pressure placed on universities to provide students with adequate care throughout their course and the necessary skills to succeed upon graduation.
Mr Millward said that the OfS would make better use of student data on access and student success to support sector-wide improvement.
“We are also going to set up what’s called an ‘evidence and impact exchange’, which in relation to access and progression will commission analysis and act as a repository for research analysis of different kinds,” he told Times Higher Education. “Universities will be able to use this as a frame of reference for examples of good practice based on what’s already working, and we will also provide toolkits and advice on how to use those.”
In this regard, the OfS sees itself as having “a really active role, not just in providing pressure as a regulator but also in supporting education providers”, he said.
Mr Millward’s succession to a role traditionally headed by former vice-chancellors has raised some eyebrows, but the appointments were not directly comparable, he argued. “This role is not just about access agreements, which is what my predecessors were responsible for,” he said.
“The diversity in my experience – having worked in both universities and more on a government level over the past 20 years – [gives me] an insight into how all those different levers can be brought to play.”
Under the OfS, regulators have a “much more nuanced and smarter set of powers” than previous directors at the Office for Fair Access may have had, Mr Millward continued. “In the past it was the case that you could simply accept or reject a plan – that was it,” he said. “Now, for example, [regulators] can apply specific conditions to registration if universities want to stay where they are in the register [and not face intervention].”
Nonetheless, the OfS’ purpose “is not about control”, he added. “I’m looking for universities and colleges [to reduce] the access and attainment gaps but they will do that in very different ways. [My role] is all about introducing intelligent regulation.”