The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have pledged to halve the gap in entry rates to the institutions between the most and least advantaged students in the next five years.
The institutions set the targets as the new regime governing widening participation in England, overseen by the Office for Students, came into force. Forty-one institutions published access and participation plans on 9 September, mostly those with early admissions deadlines – for example, for medicine courses.
The OfS said that three-quarters of the institutions – 31 – would be subject to “enhanced monitoring”, imposing additional reporting requirements, specific changes to address “areas of weakness”, or other interventions.
For the first time, the plans – which must be approved if universities want to charge higher-level tuition fees of up to £9,250 – will cover three to five years, rather than the system of annual submissions run by the OfS’ predecessor organisation in this area, the Office for Fair Access.
The OfS has argued that the longer time span will allow institutions to set more ambitious targets.
In its plan, Oxford says that it plans to reduce the access gap between the most represented and least represented students, 15:1 in 2017-18, to 8:1 by 2024-25. Cambridge says that it wants to cut its gap from 14:1 to 7:1 over the same period.
The universities of Manchester and Southampton are both aiming to reduce their access gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged students from 5:1 to 3:1; while Aston University aims to eliminate the attainment gap afflicting ethnic minority students by 2025.
Achieving these targets would contribute towards meeting the OfS’ England-wide target of halving the gap in entry rates between the most and least represented students by 2024-25, and eliminating it altogether by 2038-39.
However, the regulator has warned that achieving the longer-term goals will require a substantial reduction in the number of students from the most privileged backgrounds enrolling in higher education, if the sector is not to expand significantly.
Chris Millward, the OfS’ director for fair access and participation, said that the plans proved that there was “genuine ambition and drive among universities to address equality of opportunity”.
“I am pleased they are rising to the challenge, but this is just the start. Now they must turn these ambitions into results,” he said. “This is not just about meeting short-term targets, but the first steps in a generational shift towards a fairer higher education system and a fairer society.”
In data released on 9 September, Cambridge said that it had increased the proportion of new students who attended state schools to more than 68 per cent in 2019-20, compared with 65.2 per cent in 2018-19.
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