The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have been singled out as requiring improvement on widening participation by England’s new higher education regulator.
The elite institutions were warned by the Office for Students that they could face sanctions if they did not follow through on their long-standing promise to conduct promised “robust evaluation” of their spending on bursaries for undergraduates.
Oxford and Cambridge were among three providers issued with specific conditions on their registration as the OfS named the first 42 institutions to be added to its list of registered higher education providers.
The OfS said it had “concerns” about the “high levels of spend” on financial support for students – such as bursaries – at both universities. The OfS’ predecessor in this area, the Office for Fair Access, had expressed doubt about the effectiveness of bursaries at improving retention.
The OfS said that Oxford and Cambridge had both promised to conduct “robust evaluation” in the access agreements signed with Offa for 2018-19 – agreements which confirmed the institutions’ right to charge higher-level tuition fees. However, in both cases, such assessments were “not yet delivered”, the OfS said.
Chris Millward, the OfS’ director of fair access and participation, told Times Higher Education that Oxford and Cambridge could face sanctions such as fines if they did not deliver on their promises. In both cases, the evaluations must be submitted to the OfS by the end of next February.
“If you look at the evidence on access, on whatever measure you see that Oxford and Cambridge have the biggest challenge, and so for that reason we set the highest expectations in relation to their plans and the activity they say they are doing to deliver to improve equality,” Mr Millward said.
He added: “They have for some time continued to invest a very substantial proportion [of widening access spending] in bursaries for students, and that’s not wrong necessarily, but what we really do need to know is [whether] the investment they are delivering will deal with the big challenge they have around access.”
Mr Millward said that good evidence was needed in anticipation of more “ambitious” widening access targets being set in 2019. He added that he was “not expecting” to have to impose sanctions on Oxford and Cambridge.
An Oxford spokesman said that bursaries, hardship provision and tuition fee reductions were “encouraging disadvantaged students to apply to Oxford and helping them thrive in their studies here”.
“Detailed evaluation work of our support package is already under way and we will deliver a full report to the OfS later this year, well ahead of February’s deadline,” the spokesman said.
A Cambridge spokesman said that the university would “continue to evaluate the impact of our spending on widening access and [was] committed to doing more”.
“We look forward to establishing a constructive, and productive, dialogue with the Office for Students,” he said.
The third institution that had a condition placed on its registration was the Royal Northern College of Music, relating to governance documents.