English universities will be required for the first time to prioritise getting more white working class boys into higher education, under new guidance being issued to the Office for Fair Access.
The government guidance, due to be published on 11 February, also identifies tackling high dropout rates among black students a priority.
Universities which do not address these issues could ultimately be barred from charging £9,000 tuition fees because the document will form the basis of the guidance which Offa, in turn, issues to institutions. Universities without an Offa-approved access agreement are unable to charge fees in excess of £6,000.
The government guidance responds to research which has found that young men from poor white British families are less likely to enrol in higher education than any other group. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that only 10 per cent of young white British men go to university, according to recent data.
Black students are less likely to complete their course than other ethnic groups, with their dropout rate for the first year standing at 11 per cent, compared with the average of 7.1 per cent.
The guidance, the first of its kind since 2011, also identifies students with learning difficulties as a target group for the first time, requiring better support for undergraduates with conditions such as dyslexia and Asperger’s syndrome.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said “too many students are still missing out” on going to university.
“We are asking universities to go further and faster than ever before, especially the most selective institutions,” Mr Johnson said. “This guidance for the first time identifies the groups of students where most attention is needed, such as white boys from the poorest homes and students with specific learning difficulties.”
Under the guidance, institutions will be told to do more to focus their outreach activities on the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and to offer university experiences to students at the most disadvantaged schools and colleges. BIS said that this shift would “inspire students into higher education, rather than more tokenistic efforts such as offering small numbers of bursaries which can often lead to cherry-picking the best students at the expense of others who also have the potential to benefit”.
The government also wants a renewed focus on dropout rates across all ethnic groups, highlighting “considerable disparity in non-completion rates” which it said ranged from 1.2 per cent to 25.2 per cent of the total student cohort across English institutions.
BIS said that the guidance would work towards the “ambition” of achieving Prime Minister David Cameron’s “goals” of doubling the proportion of students who were from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020, compared with 2009 levels, and increasing the number of students from black and ethnic minority backgrounds by 20 per cent.
Last week Mr Cameron said universities would be required to publish data on applications, admissions and retention, broken down by gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background, as he said the record of elite institutions on admitting students from ethnic minorities should “shame our country”.
Les Ebdon, the director of fair access to higher education, is expected to issue his guidance to institutions on 12 February.
“For the first time this guidance specifically asks institutions to consider how they can work to widen access to white men from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This group is among the least likely to enter higher education,” Professor Ebdon said.
“I will be expecting to see an increase in outreach work – with universities working to raise aspirations and attainment among people from disadvantaged backgrounds – so that nobody with the potential to benefit from higher education feels that their background holds back their ambition.”