England’s most prestigious universities have claimed that a short-termist approach from regulators is hampering their efforts to improve the diversity of their student intake.
In a submission to the Office for Students, the Russell Group says that institutions should be allowed to submit access agreements every five years, instead of annually. The mission group claims that multi-year plans would “help universities make a bigger impact in widening access”.
If they wish to charge higher level fees, universities must have sign-off from the OfS on their access agreements, which set out how they will increase their recruitment of and support for students from under-represented groups, such as those from ethnic minorities or lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The Russell Group is often criticised for many of its members’ slow progress on widening access and last month the OfS singled out the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for failing to meet promises to conduct evaluation of bursary spending made in their last access agreements.
Sarah Stevens, the Russell Group’s head of policy, told Times Higher Education that five-year plans would allow universities to put more emphasis on reaching disadvantaged students from an early age and to improve their work with schools.
“Widening access to university is a complex endeavour and it requires a sustained approach over time. Requiring universities to set access and participation plans that last for just one year is not the most sensible way of approaching it,” she said. “Focusing on setting longer-term strategies, with coordination from government to improve understanding of what works in widening access, would really help to accelerate the pace of change.”
Tim Bradshaw, the mission group’s chief executive, added that “the unintended outcome of annual plans has been that universities are often forced to compete with each other on recruitment to meet short-term targets”. He argued that a “horizon shift” was needed in the regulation.
However, other sector experts have expressed scepticism about whether longer-term plans would boost widening access.
Graeme Atherton, director of London-based widening participation network AccessHE, said that the current system did not prevent universities from planning in advance.
“There are four-year milestones that you have to set. Writing the agreement can be painstaking, but they are valuable things to have,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to dilute what has, despite some criticism surrounding how universities are actually using their resources, been very effective in ensuring widening access has remained a priority for every institution.”
Dr Atherton argued that reducing the frequency of access agreements would “reduce the amount of public scrutiny about how universities operate”, and suggested that this would be unwise.
Jacqueline Stevenson, head of research in the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University, expressed concern that calling for five-year access agreements was a “distraction technique”.
“There is nothing stopping universities from setting five-year strategies now,” she said. “Universities can develop their own institutional strategy for however many years they want and then use the annual plan to report on it.”
Professor Stevenson said that, rather than calling for regulatory change, Russell Group universities “need to be interrogating why they have been unable to make their own progress”.
“With this proposal there is the danger that you are allowing people to delay action,” she added. “The annual reports give an imperative that it has to be rapid, because we cannot go on not changing the sector sufficiently. Progress has been too slow for too long.”