Universities must work with schools to tackle access inequity

The government last week told universities to do more to raise participation rates among white boys from poorer homes and students with specific learning difficulties, as well as students from ethnic minorities.

In guidance issued to the Director of Fair Access, the government has set out clear ambitions for the progress universities should be making to boost social mobility and raise young people’s aspirations.

The guidance builds on the prime minister’s announcement of a new requirement for universities to routinely publish data on the backgrounds of their applicants to shine a light on their admissions processes.

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said: “Going to university opens doors to a brighter future, but too many students are still missing out. We are asking universities to go further and faster than ever before, especially the most selective institutions."

He 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. We want to see smarter spending from universities, with more outreach into neighbourhoods with low university entry rates and much deeper partnerships with local schools.”

The guidance sets out the government’s advice to the Director of Fair Access outlining the priorities for widening access and success for disadvantaged students.

All higher education providers charging tuition fees over the basic amount, currently £6,000 (US$8,700), must have an agreement containing benchmarks proposed by the university on measures to improve access, student success and progression for disadvantaged students, which must be approved by the Director of Fair Access.

The government’s ambitions include meeting the prime minister’s goals of:
  • • Doubling the proportion of university entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds by the end of this parliament from 2009 levels;
  • • Increasing the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 20% by 2020.
Under the guidance, access agreements will also be expected to:
  • • Further build partnerships with schools to target neighbourhoods with low university participation rates, leveraging the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach to help schools and colleges offer university experiences to their pupils to inspire them into higher education;
  • • Better support students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – the first time that guidelines have made a specific mention of supporting them as a target group.
Universities’ access agreements will be monitored and reviewed annually by the Director of Fair Access and their progress published, to help ensure they are meeting their obligations.

Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: “I am very pleased to receive this latest guidance, and look forward to working with ministers and the whole higher education sector as we strive to achieve the prime minister’s fair access goals.”

Widen access for white men

Ebdon said he would be issuing new access agreement guidance to universities and colleges. “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.”

He said he was 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.

Universities’ funding through their access agreements has risen from £404 million in 2009 to £745 million this coming year. The guidance highlights the need to increasingly focus this spending where it will have a genuine impact on young people most in need.

In particular, this means providing outreach to disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This will 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.

It also means tackling drop-out rates to ensure students are able to complete their courses and progress on to rewarding careers. There is a considerable disparity in non-completion rates, ranging from 1.2% to 25.2% at English institutions, which the guidance highlights as an area for new access agreements to focus improvement on.

Although recent data shows that applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds are at an all-time high, there is still much more to be done.

Only one in 10 young white British men from the most disadvantaged backgrounds progress to university; 11% of black students did not continue their studies after the first year, compared to an average of 7.1%; and elite universities have a particular challenge, only 6% of young entrants to Russell Group universities come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and only 3% at Oxford University.

Concern about these statistics lay behind Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement on 31 January that legislation will be introduced to require universities to publish statistical data on admissions and retention by gender, class, ethnic background and socio-economic class.

’Transparency duty’

Under the proposal, all universities will have a new ‘transparency duty’, part of a drive to highlight those institutions failing to improve access.

There are currently significant discrepancies in the offers made by universities to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2014 just 27 black students entered Oxford University out of an intake of more than 2,500, and only one in 10 of the poorest white working class boys enter higher education.

This new duty will highlight those universities where representation of ethnic minorities and those from disadvantaged groups are low – and help schools, colleges and higher education institutions identify where more work needs to be done.

Prime Minister Cameron said: “Too many in our country are held back – often invisibly – because of their background or the colour of their skin. We must be far more demanding of our institutions, do even more to raise aspirations and be relentless in the pursuit of creative answers.

“I believe this new transparency duty offers a real chance to help nudge universities into making the right choices and reaching out in the right ways.”