England’s most selective universities must reduce the gap in entry rates between the most and the least disadvantaged applicants by almost half by 2024-25, and eliminate it altogether by the end of the subsequent decade, the new higher education regulator has ruled.
Setting new sector-wide targets on access, the Office for Students said that “higher tariff” universities would be required to reduce the ratio of entry rates between 18- and 19-year-olds from the most and the least privileged neighbourhoods – as defined by the Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) measure of regional disadvantage – from 5.1:1 to 2.8:1 over the next six years.
The gap should be eliminated altogether by 2038-39, the regulator said.
The announcement came after data published by the Sutton Trust showed that eight leading schools sent as many pupils to the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge over three years as three-quarters of all schools and colleges, and that pupils from independent schools were more than twice as likely to attend a Russell Group university than their peers at comprehensives.
Chris Millward, the director for fair access and participation, described the targets as “ambitious”, but said that they were “realistic if universities make equality a priority and take the actions available to them”.
The OfS said that it also wanted to eliminate the entry gap between the most and the least advantaged students to all universities – not just the most selective ones – but it said that it would not set targets in this area until it knew the government’s response to the review of post-18 education led by Philip Augar. It has also put off publishing targets on access for older students to higher-tariff providers.
Targets that have been announced now will require universities to eliminate the “unexplained gap” in non-continuation between the most and the least represented groups of students by 2024-25 and then eliminate it entirely by 2030-31.
Universities will be required to reduce the “unexplained” gap in degree outcomes – as measured by the proportion of learners getting a first or 2:1 – between white and black students by 2024-25. The entire gap, including the portion attributed to “structural” differences, must be eliminated by 2030-31, the OfS said.
A final target requires universities to eliminate the gap in degree outcomes between disabled students and non-disabled students by 2024-25.
These sector-wide targets will help to shape the institutional targets that will be set in universities’ access and participation plans, which must be approved by the OfS if a provider is to charge higher-level tuition fees of up to £9,250.
The OfS also confirmed that it would make these plans cover at least three years, and up to five years, rather than the annual cycle of approvals. The regulator will also create a published dataset on individual universities’ progress on access.
Mr Millward said: “We are committed to achieving transformational change, so our targets are ambitious. But they are realistic if universities make equality a priority and take the actions available to them.
“Our new approach reduces red tape for universities that are doing well in improving access and participation. But we will not hesitate to intervene where we see low ambition, slow progress or poor practice.
“The responses to our consultation showed that universities are supportive of the move to a regulatory system that will allow them to plan more strategically, deliver more targeted and sustained activity and better demonstrate impact.”