Universities under pressure to widen access

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
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This is really interesting - access should be priority topic for unis.

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England’s universities are coming under significant pressure to do much more to widen access to higher education for our most disadvantaged students. Chris Parr reports

Just over a year ago, in April 2018, the Office for Students (OfS) became the official regulator for higher education institutions in England. Much of what it does – the registering of providers so that they can charge higher tuition fees, for example, or the publication of guidance on campus free speech – is only of fringe importance to schools.

However, the arrival of the OfS has brought a renewed focus in higher education on the importance of recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

One of the new regulator’s first acts was to place conditions on registration for several universities it believes are falling short on access. If unaddressed, these conditions can result in deregistration or a fine. Among those institutions were the universities of both Oxford and Cambridge.

The new regulator also challenged England’s universities to eliminate the university access gap within the next 20 years. This included asking the most selective universities to increase the number of students recruited from under-represented groups, slash drop-out rates for disadvantaged students, and address the fact that Black and disabled students tend to perform more poorly at university than their peers.

As Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, has said, the aim is that “future generations should have equal opportunities to access and succeed in higher education, and to achieve successful and rewarding careers. We are committed to achieving transformational change, so our targets are ambitious. But they are realistic if universities make equality a priority and take the actions available to them.”

In response to the pressure from the new regulator, a number of universities have made “outreach” activity – which includes the way in which they work with local secondary schools and sixth forms – a priority.

Shortly after the OfS imposed a regulatory condition on Oxford, for example, the university published its five-year strategy, promising to “strengthen and expand outreach activities, based on rigorous evaluation of their effectiveness” in order to recruit students “of outstanding potential at all levels, whatever their background”. And in May, it unveiled two new outreach programmes that it hopes will increase its proportion of undergraduates from under-represented backgrounds from 15 to 25 per cent (University of Oxford, 2019).

Elsewhere last month, the Russell Group of 24 elite universities announced that it is scrapping its list of facilitating subjects – or preferred academic A levels – in a bid to widen access. It did this by relaunching its Informed Choices guidance for year 10 and 11 pupils in the form of a new website advising on A level subject choice and how it relates to future university study.

In a statement the Russell Group (May 2019) said: “The renewed guidance is particularly targeted towards supporting less advantaged pupils, who may not always receive the same level of advice as their better off peers. Research by the Sutton Trust (2015) has found that bright but disadvantaged A level students are only half as likely as their wealthier class mates to be taking subjects considered to provide access to selective universities.”

In addition to inflicting conditions of registration, as it did in the case of Oxford and Cambridge, the OfS can also place institutions under “enhanced monitoring” or make some other formal contact. According to Nicola Dandridge, the regulator’s chief executive, there had been 69 interventions made for reasons relating to access as of March 11. It is likely that the affected universities will also be looking at how they work with local schools.

Speaking to SecEd, Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust – a charity which works to improve social mobility – welcomed the OfS’s “robust stand on access”.

He told us: “We have long called for radical change to open up our leading universities so the regulator should be applauded for taking on this challenge. Our research found that there was a lack of university outreach in many regions of the UK outside of London. Many universities are beginning to address this by focusing their access efforts on their local communities.

“Some offer lower offers to poorer pupils in a specific area, others provide support through programmes and outreach. As part of this, universities need to work with local schools to make sure teachers are aware of all the options open to their pupils.”

However, outreach works both ways and Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told SecEd that it has “always been important for schools and colleges to have a good understanding of the university landscape”. He explained: “They will already have established links with local universities and a good knowledge of the sector which they will be able to develop to ensure their students are fully able to utilise initiatives to broaden participation.

“However, post-18 education and training is increasingly difficult territory to navigate because of the range and complexity of options, not only in terms of university courses, but also through Apprenticeships.

“Schools and colleges have many pressures on their time and limited resources. What they really need is more investment by the government in high-quality careers information and guidance for their students.”

The next 12 months are likely to see a continued focus on access from the higher education institutions. There has been a noticeable change in the priority attached to the issue not only by the regulator but also by government.

Speaking at a Resolution Foundation event last year, education secretary Damian Hinds said “social mobility is, ultimately, why I’m in politics”.

He continued: “We can point to record numbers of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going on to attend university – but, we should be honest about digging into these figures a little deeper and acknowledging the 18-year-old applicants from the most advantaged areas in the country are still nearly five and a half times more likely to enter the most selective universities than their disadvantaged peers. And that is not acceptable.”

  • Chris Parr is a freelance journalist.

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This is really interesting - access should be priority topic for unis.
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