Source: Stuart Franklin/Magnum
The most selective universities will be asked to dramatically increase the number of students they take from deprived areas, as higher education’s access watchdog launches a new strategy that may prompt clashes with elite institutions and raise questions about whether it is overstepping its powers.
Announcing its new five-year strategy, the Office for Fair Access says that it wants to see highly selective universities become far more socially diverse places by 2020 and sets itself targets on admissions – a change from its previous focus on applications.
In an unprecedented move, England’s university access regulator has set itself a series of access targets to narrow the participation gap between the richest and poorest.
Within four years it wants 5 per cent of students from the UK’s lowest participation areas to attend the most highly selective universities – a 56 per cent increase on this year’s 3.2 per cent rate – says the Offa Strategic Plan 2015-2020, published on 26 February.
Offa says that it wants to narrow the participation gap between social classes, which currently means that the richest 20 per cent of students are 6.8 times as likely to attend a highly selective university as the poorest 20 per cent. It hopes to cut this gap to five-to-one by 2019-20.
Setting ambitious targets regarding student admissions marks a “substantial departure” for Offa, which has tended to focus on improving “inputs”, such as increasing the pool of poorer applicants or the amount of money available for student support, said Les Ebdon, its director.
Professor Ebdon said that Offa’s new targets would not mean that it would set quotas or targets for universities, but would “encourage universities to set themselves more challenging targets”.
“I do not set targets for individual institutions – they set their own targets and we decide if they are challenging enough,” he said.
Faster progress on fair access
The lifting of student number controls this autumn would allow highly selective institutions to “make further, faster progress” on access by expanding their numbers of poorer students, said Professor Ebdon.
Some institutions had previously blamed the cap on institutional student numbers for impeding their efforts to recruit greater numbers of poorer students, he explained.
“Now the cap has gone, the excuses have also gone,” said Professor Ebdon.
Offa is also targeting a significant increase in enrolment rates from poorer areas across the whole of higher education, aiming to almost double the higher education entry rate from poorer areas from about 20 per cent in 2011-12 to 36 per cent in 2019-20.
The new targets were criticised by the Russell Group, which represents 24 research-intensives universities.
Wendy Piatt, the group’s director general, said its universities would spend nearly £250 million next year on supporting poorer students in higher education and encouraging them to apply and are “keen to make even more progress” on university access.
However, an emphasis on targets may “disincentivise universities from continuing with some activities in deprived areas which target the students who are the hardest to reach”.
The reasons for low entry rates in poorer areas were “complex” and primarily related to lower achievement in schools, she added. Only about 550 students receiving free school meals achieved three As at A level in 2010-11, she said.
Targets also did not “consider whether able students apply in the first place”, she said. “Despite all our efforts to encourage applications from disadvantaged students, we can’t offer places to those who don’t apply,” Dr Piatt added.
Speaking generally about the role of Offa rather than the new strategy, David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies and co-author of The Law of Higher Education, said that Offa had no legal powers to compel universities to take more socially disadvantaged students.
Noting that Offa is prevented from interfering in admissions by the Higher Education Act 2004, which established the body and said its director must protect academic freedom, he said that “in ‘hard law’ terms, Offa can’t force anything”.
“Of course, in ‘soft law’ terms, it is influential,” he added, stating that Offa’s “aspiration” to increase fair access might be viewed by some universities as an implicit “target and then a quota”.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, believed that major progress could be made in the coming years.
“Removing student number controls is the single biggest thing you can do to widen participation,” said Mr Hillman.
“It means admissions is no longer a zero-sum game and you can start taking every student you want,” he said.
Some may question the timing of Offa’s publication of its strategic plan, given the upcoming general election and the possibility of a change to the fee regime if a Labour government comes to power.
Offa’s role centres on approving access agreements funded from the portion of fees above £6,000.