Can we expect a rocket boost for fair access?


This post considers whether the forthcoming Higher Education Green Paper will propose radical reform to bring about fair access to universities.


The runes first written

The Conservative Government aspires to widen participation and improve fair access.

Courtesy of David Blackwell

There was no explicit commitment in the Conservative election manifesto but, one week before the May 2015 General Election, a Tory press release announced that:

‘Underlining a future Conservative government’s commitment to young people, the Prime Minister will set out a goal that by 2020, disadvantaged young people will be twice as likely to enter higher education than under Labour.’

On 1 July 2015, Jo Johnson, the newly-appointed Minister of State for Universities and Science both reaffirmed and clarified this statement:

‘The Prime Minister has set an ambitious goal to double the proportion of those from disadvantaged backgrounds progressing into higher education by 2020 (compared with 2009).’

He subsequently raised the status of the goal to a firm target, while placing the burden of expectation firmly upon the higher education system:

‘I will challenge you to do all you can to reach this target’

He confirmed an extended term for the current Director of Offa, Les Ebdon:

‘…to help us fulfil a commitment that is central to this One Nation Government’s aim to promote social mobility in this country.’

He noted evidence of improvements to date, endorsing the ‘whole student lifecycle approach adopted in the National Strategy for Access and Student Success, by indicating that it would be reinforced through the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF):

‘I expect our new Teaching Excellence Framework to include incentives that reward institutions who do best at retention and progression of disadvantaged students through their college years.’

Tellingly, he added:

In particular, I want to see more progress being made in the most selective institutions.’

Johnson made no commitment to the continuation of Offa in its present form.

BIS has subsequently confirmed that consultants are reviewing operating costs across the Department and partner organisations, to inform its response to the 2015 Spending Review.

Rumours are rife that Hefce and Offa may be in the firing line and Universities UK, in its submission to the Review, supports merger of the two bodies. (UUK also emphasises the complementarity of Hefce’s Student Opportunity Grant and Offa’s Access Agreement regime, urging that both should be maintained.)

In its response to the speech, Ebdon described access as ‘a national success story in recent years’.

He added that the Prime Minister’s goal was consistent with the targets in Offa’s strategic plan, commenting:

‘It is also right that the Minister called for further action from our most selective universities: significant progress on access has been made since 2011 in that part of the sector but there is still a long way to go.’


The runes revised

In September 2015 Johnson confirmed that a Higher Education Green Paper would be published in the Autumn (the Government’s Autumn stretches to 1 December) and would consult stakeholders on ’how we can accelerate progress in widening participation’.

In this speech Johnson described higher education as ‘the most powerful driver of social mobility we have’ and added further priorities to the original goal:

‘We also want to see a 20% increase in the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 2020, with matched improvements in their completion rates and progression into work. Young people with a Caribbean heritage will need special attention as part of this work and I will be discussing this with HEFCE and OFFA, and my counterparts at the Department for Education.’

He continued:

‘Among the many concerning features highlighted by BIS research into this issue is the persistent underperformance in education of white children eligible for free school meals. The problem is particularly acute for disadvantaged white boys. Barely 10% of white British boys from the most disadvantaged backgrounds go to university, making them 5 times less likely to study at this level than the most advantaged white boys. They are also doing worse compared to the most disadvantaged among other ethnic groups, with participation rates over 20% for boys of black Caribbean heritage, nearly 50% for boys of Indian heritage and over 60% for boys of Chinese heritage.

Prior attainment in school is a major factor driving differences in participation, but attitudes towards university, which can be shaped by good careers advice and employer engagement, also play a part. Discussions with Office for Fair Access have suggested that there is the potential for us to have significant impact by raising the profile of this group, which has not been specifically targeted in the past.

This needs serious attention and I will be writing to OFFA asking them to focus on this in their guidance to institutions on 2017 to 2018 access agreements.’

Johnson concluded this section of his speech by calling for greater data transparency. He revealed that he had requested UCAS to publish its analyses of offers for protected and disadvantaged groups, adding that UCAS had agreed to share more data with researchers, and called on universities to consider what additional information they might provide.

UCAS has since published Analysis Note 2015/5 about offer rates for different ethnic groups. We await further publications in this series.

UCAS also released a statement defending its record on the publication of data. It will be interesting to see whether the Green Paper pushes UCAS to publish fuller data in different formats.

The UCAS position has already been criticised by Boliver, who identified several shortcomings in the published Analysis Note, adding:

‘UCAS insists that it will only share de-identified data for those applicants who explicitly consent to this. This seems an honourable intention but may result in a dataset that is very unrepresentative of all students if a significant number of applicants opt-out of data sharing. This would of course make it very difficult to draw reliable conclusions about the fairness or otherwise of university admissions.

A likely consequence of UCAS’s policy on data sharing is the provision of an unnecessarily uncomprehensive and unrepresentative dataset from which few if any reliable conclusions about fair admissions can be drawn.’

According to this THE article Johnson used a fringe event speech at the Conservative Party Conference in early October to announce that the Green Paper would emerge ‘over the next few weeks’.

The time it takes to appear will be a good indicator of the level of cross-Departmental agreement to the proposals it contains.

He also confirmed the significance of the TEF for the latter stages of the ‘whole student lifecycle’ approach:

‘Widening participation and access will be intimately linked to the TEF. One of the core metrics we envisage using in the TEF will be the progress and the value add [for] students from disadvantaged backgrounds, measuring it for example in terms of their retention and completion rates. And their [universities’] success in moving students on to either further study or graduate work.’


Targets, reforms and distractions

We expect the Green Paper to set out policy options for ensuring that, by 2020 and compared with a 2009 baseline, the system has:

  • Doubled the proportion of disadvantaged students progressing to HE, with particular emphasis on progression by disadvantaged white boys and, more generally, access to the most selective universities; and 
  • Increased by 20% the number of BME students progressing to HE, with particular emphasis on those of Caribbean heritage.

But as yet Johnson has only discussed reforms focused on second-order issues such as data-sharing, TEF metrics and the content of guidance on access agreements.

They might bring about a marginal improvement in the medium term, but they are unlikely to contribute significantly to the achievement of his five-year targets.

Does Johnson agree with Offa that ‘business as usual’, in line with its strategic plan and the National Strategy, will secure these outcomes? Does he fully endorse the existing Offa and Hefce work programmes as necessary and sufficient to implement the National Strategy?

Is he intent on revolution or evolution merely? Given the Spending Review he will have no additional funds to devote to this priority, indeed Student Opportunity Grant is particularly vulnerable to funding cuts.

When it comes to the specifics, there is a significant risk that extended debate over the most appropriate measures will continue to be deployed as a smokescreen by those disinclined to do the Government’s bidding.

Such procrastination also risks diverting the energies of those more amenable to implementing Government reforms.

This debate will almost certainly emerge once we see the baselines proposed within the Green Paper.

I can foresee five main bones of contention, each addressed below.


The measure of disadvantage:

Is classification based on small local areas – typically via the POLAR measure so heavily utilised in universities’ access agreements – preferable to eligibility for free school meals?

A recent survey of university widening participation managers confirmed that almost all pre- and post-1992 universities use POLAR or similar ‘low participation neighbourhood’ measures, despite concerns about precision and validity.

There was evidence of perverse incentives as a consequence:

  • Some 60% of respondents considered that increasing applications from a disadvantaged area or school would be construed as successful, regardless of the individual’s status.
  • Some 53% believed that recruiting an advantaged student from a disadvantaged area was equally or even more important to their HEI than recruiting a disadvantaged student from an advantaged area.

Respondents rated FSM eligibility as a comparatively more valid and precise measure, but were concerned about accuracy and availability.

The authors comment:

‘This is surprising given that schools have ready access to this information, not least to enable them to administer the Pupil Premium.’

‘In general, there were few linkages mentioned between WP activities and the Pupil Premium, despite its prominent social policy position and the individual nature of the targeting of school resources. This would appear to be a misalignment in policy and practice between educational sectors.’

There are, of course, differences between FSM eligibility and pupil premium eligibility, not least the fact that the deprivation criterion is ‘ever 6 FSM’. Moreover, there is some uncertainty in the system since the basis for determining eligibility must change soon, as a consequence of the introduction of Universal Credit.

Even so, the fundamental disconnect between pupil premium and widening participation/fair access is unhelpful in securing effective cross-phase collaboration and should be addressed directly in the Green Paper.


The measure of selectivity:

There are too many methods of defining a subset of selective HEIs.

BIS, Hefce and Offa typically prefer ‘the top third of HEIs when ranked by mean UCAS tariff score from the top three A level grades of entrants’. This group of 50 or so institutions changes each year, though there is significant consistency from year to year.

The Independent Commission on Fees uses more idiosyncratic Sutton Trust measures, because the Trust provides it with analytical and secretarial support.

The ‘Sutton Trust 13’ was derived from ‘average newspaper league table rankings’ and created in 2000. Its membership has not changed since.

The Sutton Trust 30 was described in 2011 as including:

‘universities in Scotland, England and Wales with over 500 undergraduate entrants each year, where it was estimated that less than 10 per cent of places are attainable to pupils with 200 UCAS tariff points (equivalent to two D grades and a C grade at A-level) or less. These 30 universities also emerge as the 30 most selective according to the latest Times University Guide.’

It excludes two Russell Group institutions and adds in eight more.

DfE uses membership of the Russell Group in its destinations data even though this is purely a membership organisation and no objective criteria are applied to potential members.

The destinations data also provides separate figures for Oxford and Cambridge universities, commonly understood to be the most highly selective institutions, although that does not apply consistently across courses and subjects.

Unsurprisingly, the incidence of disadvantaged students tends to decrease with the selectivity of the institution.

For example, the DfE destinations data for AY2012/2013 shows that, whereas 8.6% of admissions to all HE were from FSM students, this fell to 4.9% for ‘top-third’ institutions, to 4.1% for Russell Group universities and to 1.9% for Oxbridge.

To the extent that Johnson is focused on fair access, the most highly selective institutions – and I don’t mean the top third – should be central to his strategy. 

The reasons for this distribution strike to the heart of the debate about fair access but it is commonly agreed that differential attainment is a core issue. Johnson himself acknowledges the significance of prior attainment when discussing disadvantaged white boys.

Put crudely, relatively few disadvantaged learners achieve the GCSE and A level grades necessary for entry to the most selective courses – and contextual admissions are not sufficient to eliminate that disparity.

The recent survey of HE widening participation managers showed that some respondents regarded raising attainment as entirely beyond their remit:

‘Over a third (38 percent) of respondents felt that their institution was not concerned with raising results at Key Stage 4 and a quarter (26 percent) held the same view about Key Stage 5.’

Many others identified this as an area of weakness within their operations. Those  that were engaged mentioned masterclasses, study skills development, mentoring and compacts as examples of their activities. All are either one-off engagements or localised endeavours targeting a handful of potential students.

It will be critical for the Green Paper to address directly the controversial issue of contextual admissions, but also how best to strengthen universities’ role in more systematically strengthening the attainment of disadvantaged learners, through collaborative cross-phase work with schools and colleges.


The interaction between gender, disadvantage and ethnicity:

The proposed 20% increase in BME participation does not yet have a baseline. According to the most recent data from the Equality Challenge Unit, relating to AY2012/13, 22.1% of students in England were BME and 77.1% were white.

A 20% increase in BME representation would mean almost 70,000 extra BME students, based on AY2012/13 figures – and would increase the BME share of the HE population to approximately 26.5%.

Just 1.8% of the HE population was Black Caribbean in AY2012/13 – approaching 30,000 students. It is not clear whether Johnson expects this population to contribute a disproportionately large number of the additional BME entrants and, if so, what would be feasible by AY2019/2020

In relation to the BME target, selectivity is again an issue. Boliver has shown that, compared with their incidence in the overall population of 15-29 year-olds in England and Wales, Black Caribbean students are over-represented at UK universities and under-represented at Russell Group universities, while the reverse is true of White students.

Moreover, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black other students are also significantly under-represented, at all universities and at Russell Group universities.

The source of Johnson’s statement on participation by disadvantaged white boys is apparently as yet unpublished.

‘Barely 10% of white British boys from the most disadvantaged backgrounds go to university, making them 5 times less likely to study at this level than the most advantaged white boys. They are also doing worse compared to the most disadvantaged among other ethnic groups, with participation rates over 20% for boys of black Caribbean heritage, nearly 50% for boys of Indian heritage and over 60% for boys of Chinese heritage.’

It raises almost as many questions as it answers.

An Analysis of Trends in Higher Education Applications published in August 2014 by the Independent Commission on Fees compares application and entry rates by gender and disadvantage.

  • In AY2014/15, 21.5% of English FSM 18 year-old women applied to HE, compared with 14.3% of men.
  • In AY 2013/14, 20.0% of English 18 year-old women in POLAR2 quintile 1 areas entered HE, compared with 13.9% of men.
  • ‘In 2014, disadvantaged women were 1.5 times more likely than disadvantaged men to apply to university, whereas the difference between non-disadvantaged men and women was 1.32 times. These ratios have been relatively stable over the 2010-2014 cycles…’
  • ‘… In 2013, the most disadvantaged women (those in Q1) were 1.44 times more likely to take up a place at university than were the most disadvantaged men; whereas in the most advantaged quintile (Q5), women were only 1.19 times more likely to take up a place than men. Again, these ratios have remained relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.’

But there is precious little published data that incorporates all three variables.

UCAS submitted a single table of this nature to the Education Select Committee inquiry into underachievement in education by white working class children (June 2014). It shows applicant rates by ethnic background for male and female 18 year-old applicants from POLAR quintile 1 averaged over the period 2006-13.


Ucas 1 Capture

UCas 2 Capture


This suggests that black and mixed ethnicity men from disadvantaged backgrounds are equally under-represented. It paints a somewhat different picture to Johnson’s statement.

Johnson’s predecessor David Willetts raised the same issue in 2013 under the previous Coalition Government, but he cited no data. There was no comment from Offa and disadvantaged white males did not merit a reference in Offa’s guidance on 2016-17 access agreements.

When UCAS Chief Executive Curnock-Cook reportedly raised the gender gap in admissions in summer 2015, she was not explicit about the impact on disadvantaged men.

A DfE research study published in June 2015 did not extend to HE entry, but did conclude that:

‘While much concern has focused on the underachievement of White working class boys, girls also show low levels of attainment. While gender may be a factor in underachievement, there is no justification for resources to be targeted at White working class boys rather than White working class girls.’

If this is to be a priority for fair access, more evidence is needed to inform debate about the appropriate response. This needs to untangle the relative impacts of gender, ethnicity and disadvantage.

As Johnson himself acknowledges, it is unlikely that stronger focus in access agreements will bring about the desired improvement, unless integrated into a wider cross-Government support strategy.


The definition of the target group

This is a portmanteau category for a huge range of other issues associated with the construction of the measures.

For example, do they relate to applications, offers, entry rates, retention or course completion? Do they apply to young students only, or to both young and mature students, to full-time only or full- and part-time students, to undergraduates only, or to undergraduates, postgraduates and those enrolled on non-degree courses?

Do they relate to England only – whether to institutions located in England, or to students resident in England, or both? Is the baseline academic year 2008/09 or is it 2009/10?


Potential perverse effects:

For example:

  • Is there a risk that the emphasis through TEF on retention and graduation measures will divert attention from the initial recruitment of disadvantaged students?
  • Do these targets, focused as they are on increasing disadvantaged participation, divert attention away from measures to close the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students? In other words, if disadvantaged participation increases, but advantaged participation increases even more, is the policy still successful?
  • On the face of it, the BME participation target cuts directly across the disadvantaged participation target, in that it could be achieved by increasing the recruitment of advantaged BME students? How can these two priorities be properly reconciled?

Last word

It is hard to see how ‘business as usual’ will deliver the demanding targets proposed in Johnson’s speeches. Nor will the additional policies he has already announced make up the shortfall. The contribution to social mobility will be marginal at best.

If this Green Paper is to make a real difference it has to show a scale of ambition commensurate with Conservative confidence in the early stages of a new government.

I have set out an ambitious yet affordable policy (see the final section of this post) to improve fair access to selective higher education for disadvantaged students. The cost can be met entirely within existing budgets.

It starts from the basic premiss that the distinctive contributions made by the school, college and higher education sectors must be integrated within a single countrywide cross-phase effort.

Until someone stumbles over this elephant in the room we are doomed to tinker perpetually at the edges of the substantive problem.



October 2015







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