Russell Group warns against English regulator’s access targets

OfS plans would mean high-tariff institutions admitting any students with A levels, and eventually those without qualifications, group claims

May 27, 2020
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The long-term targets set by England’s regulator to eliminate gaps in access to the most selective universities will mean a freeze in the number of students from the most advantaged groups, and eventually admitting students without qualifications, according to the Russell Group.

In a paper, “Pathways to Potential”, the group of research-intensive institutions sets out a “plan of action” to improve access to its member institutions. But it also calls for an overall national strategy, arguing that without concerted effort across the whole of the education system, the Office for Students’ long-term targets to eliminate gaps in access to selective universities will not be met.

The paper outlines the five “principles of good practice” that Russell Group institutions have committed to, aimed at improving opportunities for disadvantaged and under-represented students. This includes better evaluation of their access and participation activities, ensuring accountability and sharing best practice and more transparency about their admissions policies.

Although the targets apply only to England’s universities, the Russell Group said its institutions in the devolved nations were also committed to the principles.

However, the group warned that focusing solely on university admissions would not address the embedded inequalities in the UK that have resulted in students from independent schools being more than twice as likely to attend a Russell Group university as their peers at comprehensives.

The OfS announced “ambitious” sector-wide targets to eliminate the entry gap at England’s most selective universities at the end of 2018.

The Russell Group paper argues that “some aspects of the regulatory framework for access and participation could actually hamper efforts to deliver the transformational change we are all looking for”.

It says the target to eliminate the entry gap by 2039-40 would mean that the number of students from the most advantaged areas would be “effectively frozen”, while the number of students from the least advantaged areas would increase by 620 per cent in the next 20 years.

“This is likely to be extremely challenging,” according to the paper. Students from disadvantaged areas tend to have much lower prior attainment at school, meaning that many do not meet entry criteria, and by 2026 the target would mean high-tariff institutions admitting any pupils with three A levels regardless of grades, the paper suggests.

“By 2035, higher tariff institutions would need to recruit all Quintile 1 [most disadvantaged] entrants to the whole higher education system, including those currently going to medium and lower tariff institutions, regardless of whether they have studied academic qualifications at all,” it says.

This is why a national strategy is needed, according to the Russell Group.

Changes should include addressing the issue of inequality in education across more than one government department, setting targets for the government itself and creating a Government Office for Tackling Inequality, the paper argues.

The paper also says that the National Pupil Database should be made “more accessible and user-friendly” for universities to access, to allow them to identify, target and track prospective applicants from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said he welcomed the paper and the commitments made by Russell Group universities.

“There has been clear progress in opening up opportunities to study at the most selective universities, but where you come from continues significantly to determine where you end up. There is still a long way to go before these opportunities are genuinely available across all parts of the country,” he said.

He continued: “We support the Russell Group’s aim for universities to be able to access more individualised data so they can identify those students who are most critically disadvantaged, and will continue to work with Ucas and the Department for Education towards achieving this, while ensuring the protection of student data. The current crisis has revealed different experiences and outcomes across our educational system, so it is more important than ever to make progress on tackling inequality in higher education.”

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said it was “more crucial than ever before that we tap into the brilliant talent that our country has to offer, and make sure that anyone who wants to, whatever their background or wherever they come from, is given the chance to go to university.”

“The past few months have been unprecedented, and I am incredibly proud of our universities, who have been pivotal in the fightback against Covid-19 and will continue to be crucial as we recover from this global pandemic,” she added.

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