HEPI: ‘It could take a century to hit HE access targets’

At the current rate of progress, it will take 96 years to hit the official targets for access to highly selective universities in England set by the regulator, the Office for Students.

Without faster progress, the target of raising the participation rate of young people (aged 18 to 30) from the least advantaged areas to the existing participation rate for young people from the most advantaged areas will take four times as long as the current target date of 2037-38 to end equality gaps in higher education.

This is the conclusion of a new report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute or HEPI, Social Mobility and Elite Universities (HEPI Policy Note 20), by Professor Lee Elliot Major and Dr Pallavi Amitava Banerjee, both of the University of Exeter.

It says that to ensure young people in all areas enjoy the same current participation rate as the most advantaged, there would need to be a doubling in the number of places at highly selective universities to 170,000.

If the number of degree places at more selective institutions were instead kept steady, the number of places for advantaged pupils would need to fall by 10,000 or one-third of current annual intakes (assuming the participation rate of those in the middle does not change).

Major, a professor in social mobility at the University of Exeter and the lead author of the report, said: “Current progress on fairer access to our most selective universities is glacially slow.”

He said the time has come for a simpler, more transparent, consistent and honest system of university admissions, recognising that A-Level grades and the system of predicted grades are no longer the gold standard of entry.

“Failing to find ways of expanding university places will prompt acrimonious battles over who secures degree places – a clash of the classes – with politicians, parents and students questioning the fairness of university admissions.”

Universities need to embrace a cultural shift in the support provided for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, seeing greater diversity as an opportunity to enrich the academic experience for all students and staff, the report argues.

Its recommendations include:

  • • More contextualised admissions – the authors argue that universities in England should produce two published offers for degree courses, a standard entry requirement and a minimum entry requirement of up to three A-Level grades lower (for example, 3Bs rather than 3As), learning from successful practice in Scotland.

  • • Random allocation of places – universities should consider using random allocation of places for students over a minimum academic threshold, as has occurred in other countries.

  • • More diverse provision – the Office for Students should challenge highly selective universities to expand student numbers in innovative ways to diversify their intakes, including more degree apprenticeships, foundation years and courses for part-time and mature learners.

Banerjee, co-author of the report and senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter, said: “We need a fundamental shift in culture, with universities reflecting on the needs of students from a range of backgrounds, from extra-curricular activities to lectures and tutorials.

“We need a mixed economy of degree places even at our most prestigious academic institutions.”

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said: “Higher education transforms people’s lives. Since the removal of student number controls, it has been easier than ever before for young people with the potential and desire to go to find a place.

“Yet access remains very unequal, especially at more selective universities.”

He said people from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to attend the country’s oldest, most famous and most prestigious universities and, while trends are moving in the right direction, progress has been very slow.

“The Office for Students are right to keep the pressure on and this new report will hopefully encourage an evidence-informed debate on how to speed up the process,” he said.

But Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of the Open University, writing in response to the report for HEPI, said that while the measures the report advocates would help diversify elite institutions, they would do so at the cost of other universities, particularly those established post 1992, that “do not have the prestige that comes with the academic snobbery that pervades British higher education”.

He said a key recommendation of the report is the one to adopt the Scottish approach of each programme in every institution including an intake quota at lower grades reserved for applicants from the most deprived areas.

“This recognises that deprivation generally depresses academic attainment and that these applicants are still likely to succeed with the right support and teaching.”

But the problem is that the elite universities, because they are highly selective, cream off students who have had all the advantages that enable them to be academic high achievers at school, concentrating these students in institutions that are full of other students like them, he said.

This makes all universities less diverse and “denies other universities a mix of abilities that is likely to enrich their learning environment and benefit everyone”, he argues.

“Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to address this problem is to return to student number controls at an institutional level and require institutions to use entry quotas banded by grades above a minimum matriculation requirement to create mixed ability intakes across the board. This would be a requirement of their access or outcome agreements,” he said.