English universities must work more closely with schools to improve the chances of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into higher education, according to new guidance from the Office for Fair Access (Offa).
However, universities will not be required to sponsor a school to have their access agreement approved in what appears to be a watering down of government plans first mooted last year.
Any university or college wishing to charge students higher fees in 2018-19 must first have an access agreement approved by Les Ebdon, director of fair access to higher education.
Last year, citing research showing that prior attainment was one of the biggest factors determining access to higher education, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, told universities they would have to set up a new school or sponsor an existing underperforming school if they wanted to charge above the basic tuition fee threshold of £6,000.
The proposals were met with strong opposition from the sector however, and Offa's latest guidelines do not state that universities need to be sponsoring a school in order to obtain an approved access agreement.
Instead, the guidelines recognise the "timing of the access agreement cycle" and the "long-term strategic nature" of sponsorship will mean any plans will only be in development stages when 2018-19 access agreements are submitted.
Nevertheless, Offa expects institutions to show evidence of its future plans in this area, and to have developed them "much more fully" in their 2019-20 agreements.
The guidance tells universities to "increase the pace and scope of your work with schools to raise attainment”, to help drive "faster improvements on access", and states “a strong expectation" that more institutions will sponsor schools or have advanced plans to do so already.
“For some time, a number of universities – especially those with the highest entrance requirements – have told me that there’s a limit to what they can do to improve fair access because people from disadvantaged areas [often] secure lower entrance grades," Professor Ebdon said.
“I’m afraid this argument just doesn’t hold water. It is precisely because there are lower rates of attainment in disadvantaged areas that universities must work in close partnership with schools to raise attainment. I want it to be a major part of the access plans of universities."
A government spokesman said it welcomed the guidance as an "important first step" towards creating "thriving university supported schools in every part of the country".
"We are committed to creating more good school places and universities have an important role to play - with many already helping raise standards," he said. “But we want the whole sector to work with us to improve the quality of schools, so that more students of all backgrounds have the grades and the confidence to apply to the best universities."
Some highly selective universities have already made fresh steps in this area. At the end of last year, the University of Bristol launched their "Bristol Scholars" scheme, which will see lower offers made to five “high potential” students from every school in the local area.
The guidance also advises universities to increase investment in access activity and also consider how they can enhance support for particular groups such as white males from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, black and minority ethnic students, students with disabilities, and mature and part-time learners.