The HE white paper underwhelms on fair access


This post compares white paper plans to strengthen fair access with the proposals set out in the green paper.

It assesses each element of these plans and whether they amount to a convincing national strategy.

It also considers whether the white paper is likely to bring about a much-needed improvement in the recruitment of disadvantaged students to highly selective universities.



The higher education green paper ‘Fulfilling our potential: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice’ appeared in November 2015.

My analysis: ‘Access and participation in the HE Green Paper’ (November 2015) assessed the proposed targets and the government’s initial seven-fold plan for achieving them.

More recently I published ‘A blueprint for fair access?’ (April 2016). This offered an update on developments since the green paper, including progress made against each of the seven elements in the plan.

It proposed that the English government should consider strengthening their approach by adopting key recommendations made by the Scottish Commission on Widening Access in its final report ‘A Blueprint for Fairness’ (March 2016), specifically:

  • A standard institutional access target for highly selective universities, pitched halfway towards the national target of 27.2% – so 13.6% recruitment from POLAR3 quintile 1 by 2020. (The post calculates the percentage improvement each English Russell Group university would need to achieve this outcome.)
  • As a last resort, the imposition of access thresholds – set at ‘the minimum academic standard judged necessary to successfully complete a specific degree programme’ – which would apply to candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds in place of the standard offer (and achievement of which might ultimately secure guaranteed admission).

The government published its white paper ‘Success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice’ on 16 May 2016.

On the same day it published a summary of responses to the green paper and ‘Teaching Excellence Framework: Technical Consultation for Year Two’, as well as a call for evidence on accelerated courses and switching university or degree.

On 19 May the government published a draft Higher Education and Research Bill plus explanatory notes as well as an impact assessment and an equality analysis.

This post draws on all these publications to evaluate the government’s plans to improve fair access and to review how those plans differ from the proposals contained in last year’s green paper.

An initial section below reviews the terminology adopted in the Bill and supporting documentation. The next draws out key points from the summary of green paper responses. Each subsequent section corresponds to one of the seven strands of activity. The concluding section sums up the overall prospects for success.

Will these plans generate substantive and lasting improvements in the admission rates of disadvantaged students to the selective HE institutions where they are most heavily under-represesented, or will they, at best, continue the trend of slow and faltering progress achieved over the last decade?


A note on terminology

Offa’s glossary now describes fair access this way:

‘Equality of opportunity for all those who have the potential to benefit from higher education, irrespective of their background, schooling or income. This term is often used with reference to the uneven distribution of under-represented students between universities and colleges across the higher education sector, in particular in referring to the universities with the most selective overall entry requirements where the pool of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds is relatively small.

One of Offa’s two strategic aims is:

To make faster progress in improving access to the most selective higher education institutions by students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups.

The white paper repeatedly mentions fair access alongside widening participation. The explanatory notes accompanying the draft Bill say:

‘It will also require the OfS to promote fair access and success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds alongside choice and competition. There will be an OfS executive board member with responsibility for fair access, whose role will be enshrined in law.’ (p. 8).

However, the only references to fair access on the face of the Bill are to the role of the Director for Fair Access and Participation (see below). Elsewhere the preferred terminology is ‘access and participation’. For example, clause 2 says:

‘In performing its functions the OfS must have regard to… the need to promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation in higher education provided by English higher education providers.’

There is a fundamental inconsistency in legislating for a Director of Fair Access and Participation without defining those precise terms on the face of the Bill.

Promoting access (or even promoting ‘equality of opportunity in connection with access’) is not the same thing as promoting fair access, at least as far as that term is commonly understood.

The definition of fair access included in the Bill should refer directly to the admission of disadvantaged students to selective universities.

It is noticeable that neither the impact assessment nor the equality analysis mention fair access, both referring exclusively to ‘widening participation’. The equality analysis highlights problems with access to high tariff universities in its analysis of progress to date, but then fails to explain how the Bill will improve this situation.

Taken together the various documents suggest some confusion in the corridors of power over the proper distinctions between these terms.


Green paper responses summarised

The summary below is emboldened in places to reflect points that my previous analysis has suggested are particularly significant.

First and foremost:

‘Some respondents recommended the Government should focus particularly on access and success of students from under-represented groups at the most selective providers.’

‘There was near universal support for the intention to widen access to higher education’. Moreover the majority of respondents to the question (72%) were ‘supportive of the proposed measures’, with only 9% against and 19% unsure.

Disagreement ‘was generally linked to groups not included in the proposals or a lack of clarity around how disadvantage or BME would be defined’.

Indeed ‘many respondents’ would have liked disadvantage to have been defined more clearly. Some felt that POLAR was too broad or too unsophisticated a measure. Several called for differentiation between BME groups.

‘A large number of respondents highlighted the importance of prior attainment in access to HE, and the role schools can play in this. There was also a view among HE providers that they needed schools to engage better with their outreach work. Many respondents called for improvement to information, advice and guidance in schools.’

In answer to the question whether the new Office for Students should have the power to set targets where providers are failing to make progress, 38% disagreed and 30% agreed. The remainder were presumably unsure. Most respondents would prefer that institutions set their own targets.

Many felt that the Director for Fair Access (DFA) should remain independent and retain existing powers. If subsumed within an Office for Students (OfS) respondents suggested existing target-setting practice should continue:

‘There was a general view that contextualisation based on the institution, rather than top-down targets based on national priorities, would avoid the risks of homogenising institutional activity, missing groups who were not specifically targeted, and undermining existing activity. here was widespread recognition that the DFA currently does this well, with a number of institutions labelling the system “effective”, noting that it “works well”.’

However some respondents wanted penalties or sanctions for those not meeting targets. Many ‘discussed the need for early intervention, and alongside the targets for providers, would welcome targets for schools in terms of engagement with universities and application rates to HE’.

Some respondents identified potential unintended consequences – such as providers focussing on admission to their own institution rather than HE more generally – some expressed concern about potential perverse incentives. Some ‘raised concerns about infringement of institutional autonomy, particularly around admitting students’.

When asked what other groups should be considered, the list included ‘part time, mature, disabled (disaggregated by type of disability), postgraduate, care leavers and estranged young people, carers, mental health, international, refugees, work place learners and rural areas’.

When asked what other measures should be considered, suggestions included: additional financial support, restructuring delivery modes for undergraduate degrees, making retention and achievement data more publicly available and benchmarking progress against similar institutions.


 ‘Many respondents recognised the importance of working with families and schools to encourage aspiration, raise achievement and support widening participation from a young age. Some felt that universities should be developing close partnerships with schools while others felt that Government or sector bodies should be addressing the attainment gap by raising standards in schools and tackling broader societal issues.’

In relation to making more data available, respondents identified benefits including more targeted interventions and improved evaluation. There was considerable support for longitudinal data based on the Unique Learner Number (ULN). HEIs called for full access to relevant databases. Some suggested an agency should collect and analyse the data. There were some concerns about privacy and the release of commercially sensitive information.

In relation to the TEF, most respondents agree an access agreement should be a pre-requisite; many argued for extending agreements to all providers, but ‘a number’ thought this a potential disincentive. Some saw:

‘…a positive link between widening participation and teaching quality, which presents a case for better integration of the access and quality regimes’.


‘…argued that the promotion of teaching quality and promotion of access are two very different policy challenges that require different types of responses and interventions and hence, the TEF should not look to measure or reward access as it would not be a measure of teaching quality. Some respondents argued that the TEF should support widening participation in other ways by focusing on recognising successful outcomes of teaching and by taking account of entry profiles.’

To what extent are these points reflected in the development of the seven elements that featured in the green paper?

Issuing new guidance to the Director of Fair Access

Guidance duly issued in February 2016, followed by guidance from Offa on the development of institutions’ 2017-18 access agreements.

The white paper says the former document:

‘…places a strong emphasis on making progress on the Prime Minister’s ambitions for higher education and other goals set out in the Green Paper’

It includes a discrete section relating to highly selective institutions, calling on them to ‘ratchet up their game much further’ by providing more outreach and exploring new ideas.

The section concludes:

‘We know some of this work is already happening to good effect but there needs to be much more intensive effort both individually and collaboratively…

…we look to you [Offa] to push hard to see that more progress is made. Institutions must use evidence and good practice to lever better results. There needs to be more innovation in this area. As you have said, it should not be beyond institutions themselves to find ways of making more progress.’

This heavy emphasis is only half-heartedly conveyed in Offa’s own guidance, which confines itself to two generic references to all high-tariff institutions.

They should:

‘…consider how best to significantly scale up activity, and increase coverage to increase the rate of change’ (p. 4) and

‘…consider how best to significantly scale up activity, build stronger relationships with schools and colleges, and increase coverage to strive for quicker, sustained change. Where appropriate…setting targets to capture the impact and progress of this work.’ (p. 8).

A social mobility advisory group

An advisory group was belatedly established under the aegis of Universities UK.

To date it has met twice (in February and on May 10 2016) and produced one progress report. Two supporting reference groups have been established. There will also be unspecified ‘additional opportunities for people to contribute’.

But, according to the timetable, the final report will be delivered by the end of May 2016, so these opportunities must be imminent.

The white paper says only that the group ‘will report by the summer’, so perhaps progress has been less speedy than anticipated.

The guidance to Offa also mentions the group:

‘We have asked Universities UK to establish a Social Mobility Advisory Group to identify ways of making swift progress towards meeting these challenges and achieving our ambitions. We shall look to you to work closely with this Group and to encourage institutions to act on the findings of the Group, where appropriate. Universities are best placed to decide on the strategy for access and success that will work best for them in achieving their and the Government’s ambitions.’

This makes it clear that the group’s recommendations are not intended to have any impact on national initiatives set out in the white paper. Rather they will be directed towards HE institutions – and those institutions will be entirely free to disregard them, despite any ‘encouragement’ from the DFA.


Consultation on ‘name-blind’ admissions

The green paper reiterated a prime ministerial commitment that UCAS would consult on the feasibility of introducing name-blind admissions from September 2017.

UCAS confirmed that it would do so, while also including: ‘a wider range of changes which could impact applications from BME students’. We do not yet know what these are.

UCAS has committed to a two stage process:

‘Stage 1: The first stage is an evidence gathering exercise. We are seeking views and feedback from universities and colleges in order to understand better how a name-blind approach could work in practice, what innovative approaches there are to this and what other steps UCAS could take to support universities and colleges in their efforts to minimise bias in admissions and support widening participation.

Stage 2: Based on the feedback we receive, and after discussion with Universities UK, GuildHE and the Association of Colleges, we will approach universities, colleges, schools, advisers and students to consult on a number of options which could help higher education providers in their efforts to minimise bias and widen participation.’

The first phase ended on 5 February 2016. No details have emerged.

The second phase has not yet begun. There was no reference to it in the UCAS response to the white paper. That document says only that UCAS ‘is due to make recommendations to the sector by the summer’.


Inclusion of access metrics within the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)

Essentially there were four proposals in the green paper:

  • To be eligible for the TEF, institutions should have measures in place to ‘facilitate the access and success of disadvantaged groups’, evidenced by an access agreement or equivalent.
  • Metrics would recognise their ‘track record’ on access and outcomes for disadvantaged and under-represented groups. The implication seemed to be that there would be separate reporting for disadvantaged and under-represented respectively.
  • Institutions might also supply their own additional evidence including ‘the extent to which students are recruited from diverse backgrounds’.
  • One precondition for institutions applying for a higher level assessment would be ‘fulfilling widening participation expectations in recruiting…and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds’.

The white paper revises this approach, while asserting that ‘providers’ performance in achieving positive outcomes for disadvantaged students’ will be placed ‘at the heart of’ the TEF.

There is some lack of clarity over exactly how this will be secured.

Combining the presentation in the white paper and the technical consultation document on how the TEF will operate in year two, it seems that, to apply, providers must either have an approved access agreement or ‘publish a short statement setting out their commitment to widening participation and fair access’.

Elsewhere this is described as ‘an annual statement’ and providers must also submit annual data alongside it, to include ‘application, acceptance and progression rates of students broken down by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background’. The statement will not need OfS approval.

The core metrics will not themselves include access ‘as that is not a measure of teaching quality’.


  • They will be ‘benchmarked against factors including subject, prior attainment and age’ adopting a similar methodology to that used for the UKPIs:

‘Benchmarks take the sector average for a particular indicator and adjust it for each provider to account for the differing proportions of students with certain characteristics (including subject studied) at each provider.’

  • They will be reported separately for students from different backgrounds. In relation to disadvantage the technical consultation proposes reporting the ‘split between POLAR quintiles 1-2 and POLAR quintiles 3-5. This is hardly a sophisticated distinction, but it is argued that this should enable TEF panels ‘to consider a provider’s performance for those from disadvantaged groups when considering what TEF rating should be awarded’.
  • There will be ‘specific criteria and explicit instructions’ for panels to this effect. Elsewhere this is described as ‘a proposed criterion as part of the assessment framework specifically about outcomes for disadvantaged students’. The panels will include ‘individuals with widening participation expertise’.
  • Additionally:

‘…providers will have the opportunity to provide further quantitative and/or qualitative evidence of how, taking into account their specific circumstances, they are achieving positive outcomes for disadvantaged students’ and

  • There is scope for ‘a commendation for providers showing outstanding success in supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds’. The technical consultation document suggests only 5-10% of providers would receive such a commendation.


Incorporating Offa functions into the OfS

The green paper proposed incorporating the functions of Offa and the DFA within a new Office for Students (OfS) which would be funded by subscriptions from HE providers.

This would permit the integration of different activities and funding streams supporting widening participation.

It proposed that the DFA might be given extended powers to impose targets on providers failing to make sufficient progress and/or reject access agreements where targets are missed ‘without good reason’.

The white paper is comparatively effusive on the wider theme.

  • The OfS will have a statutory duty to ‘cover equality of opportunity across the whole student lifecycle for disadvantaged students, not just access’.
  • Legislation will enable the BIS secretary of state to appoint a Director of Fair Access and Participation to the OfS board.
  • The DFA will oversee ‘expenditure on all funding allocated to widening access’ [sic] which should lead to better co-ordination and greater efficiency.
  • The DFA will ‘have a role in agreeing’ access agreements ‘but will not themselves set targets’. The white paper admits:

‘This would be a continuation of the current approach and in keeping with the views expressed by the majority of respondents to the Green Paper.’

The status quo is described as ‘a continuation of the successful way that the DFA has operated’. The OfS will inherit the DFA’s ‘duties to protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy over admissions’.

It is rare for me to agree with the Sutton Trust but, on this occasion I wholeheartedly concur with their statement:

‘…we are disappointed that the government has apparently dropped encouraging proposals to give the director more powers to set targets where universities are not making progress. This softening of the original proposals is likely to make it much harder to increase the participation of disadvantaged students’.

The OfS will now be ‘part-funded by registration fees from the sector’ but the proportion of funding to be generated from this source is not specified.


Publication of data

The green paper proposed a legal power requiring:

‘…bodies providing a service connected with the provision of higher education to provide relevant data and information to help better target efforts on widening access and success’.

In its response to the green paper UCAS – the principal target of this proposal – set out its plans for the publication of data, adding:

‘If this proposed power means that UCAS might be required to provide personal data about applicants to government bodies or HE agencies without their consent, we would argue that such a power is neither reasonable nor proportionate.’

Exactly what constitutes personal data in this context is a moot point.

Shortly afterwards Prime Minister Cameron shifted the focus of attention to HE institutions themselves, confirming that a new ‘transparency duty’ would be imposed on them by legislation.

This will require the publication of admissions and retention data:

‘…wide-ranging data…showing the ethnic, gender and socio-economic breakdown for applications, entry, and retention in key disciplines at all higher education institutions’

One might reasonably have expected the white paper to provide further detail, including the measures to be adopted, or at least those to be proposed in forthcoming legislation.

Instead it says only that the duty will require all approved providers to publish:

‘…comprehensive information on the number of students who apply for places, receive offers and drop out from higher education broken down by gender, ethnicity and social background of students at key subject level.’

There is nothing on the face of the Bill: it simply gives the power to make regulations specifying the measures.

In its response to the white paper, UCAS says:

‘UCAS will be publishing information about application, offer and acceptance rates by ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background on behalf of universities on Thursday 9 June.’

Nothing is said about dropout rates, the measures to be applied or the key subjects to be covered. This will be presented as a fait accompli, apparently without any prior consultation. It may or may not comply with any requirements in the forthcoming legislation.

This material has now been published. The only indicator of socio-economic background is the area-based POLAR3 measure. FSM-based measures are excluded, even though they were introduced into the the most recent UCAS end-of-cycle report and HESA is expected to publish an experimental FSM performance indicator in July 2016.

The UCAS material also includes data on gender and broad ethnic groups, but nothing about the interaction between these three variables.

Bodies such as UCAS will also be required to ‘share relevant data with policymakers and accredited researchers only’. It is not clear whether this will also be imposed by legislation.

There is only ‘an obligation to share this data in appropriate circumstances’ which are not defined. It will be shared only with ‘accredited researchers through specialist and secure organisations such as the Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN)’.

This is a classic example of provider capture, significantly reduces transparency and prevents independent analysts (such as yours truly) from accessing and reviewing the data.

In an effort to compensate the white paper makes much of plans to publish new data on the transition of graduates into the workplace. But what good is additional data on retention and outcomes if it is not linked with rich data on access?


Cross-departmental work with DfE

The green paper referred to cross-departmental work in government to:

‘…address some of the root causes of inequality of access and outcomes for different groups in higher education’

This would include collaboration with DfE, to:

‘…explore how we can further raise aspirations and attitudes in particular for white males from disadvantaged backgrounds’.

There was nothing about this in the March 2016 schools white paper and there is nothing in the HE white paper either.

It is conceivable that such material has been held back for the cross-government Life Chances Strategy, now delayed until summer 2016, but that too is mentioned in neither white paper.

Hefce’s new National Collaborative Outreach Programme apparently excludes anything but a supporting role for most highly selective institutions. There is nothing to suggest that they will be able to support their own recruitment. What arrangements, if any, are in place to support the continuation of relevant work undertaken through the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach?



There is some useful material in the BIS advice letter to Offa, but it needs to be backed up through structured collaboration between departments and their agencies.

The prospects for effective cross-sectoral co-ordination at national level – linking attainment-raising in schools and colleges with HE outreach – look increasingly bleak.


Summing up

In my judgement this does not amount to a coherent strategy to support fair access. We can expect some marginal improvement, but this package will not radically strengthen progression by disadvantaged students to the most selective universities.



The draft Bill fails to use and define the term ‘fair access’ (even though there will be a ‘Director for Fair Access and Participation’) while some of the supporting documentation focuses exclusively on widening participation. This terminological confusion must be clarified.

The white paper offers a handful of disconnected, second-order projects, some of them watered down in the light of consultation. There is:

  • DFA guidance which, insofar as it relates to highly selective institutions, has been underplayed in Offa’s subsequent access agreement guidance.
  • A social mobility advisory group whose recommendations will be directed at institutions rather than the centre – and which those institutions can choose to disregard.
  • A consultation on name-blind admissions.
  • The exclusion of access metrics from the TEF, with an effort to compensate through a confusion of secondary measures.
  • A DFA role within the new Office for Students, but without any new powers to impose targets or reject access agreements.
  • Initially a UCAS fait accompli on the publication of institution-specific admissions and retention data, with statutory provisions to follow, but with restricted access to important additional material, much of which could be published openly.
  • No commitment to cross-departmental work with DfE, including on progression by disadvantaged white males. The relationship between access and prior attainment is neglected completely.

It must be doubtful whether the combined effect will be sufficient to achieve the Prime Minister’s targets.

(I note in passing that there is apparently no clear guidance – whether from government to Offa or from Offa to institutions – about how to reconcile these potentially conflicting targets, to increase participation amongst disadvantaged students and amongst BME students. Which takes precedence?)

There are no radical or innovative plans to encourage the most selective universities with the least successful track records to make further and faster progress in recruiting disadvantaged students.

It is falsely assumed, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that existing systems and processes are proving effective in this respect.

Several key messages from the analysis of consultation responses have been set aside. Where opinion is divided, the default has been to accept the status quo.

What became of the bright ideas supposed to have been generated by the Prime Minister’s Summit? Why has the work of the social mobility advisory group been marginalised?

The only new idea in the white paper is the notion that reformed credit transfer processes might enhance social mobility:

‘If the option of transferring were more available, then it would be to the benefit of students who might otherwise have dropped out, perhaps because they needed to be in a different part of the country, as well as reduce the typically three-year commitment that deters potential students with less secure backgrounds. In addition, research by the Sutton Trust indicates that many students from under-represented groups attend institutions that they are over-qualified for – often, especially if they are the first in their family to attend university, because they didn’t have the self-belief to aim higher. Transferring institutions at the end of the first or second year could in many cases significantly improve the life chances of these individuals.’

But this is another second order issue. It seems particularly doubtful that many highly selective universities will provide opportunities for substantial numbers of disadvantaged students to transfer late on to their courses. Certainly institutions will be unwilling to accept any proposals to this effect.

Ultimately this is another missed opportunity I’m afraid: yet another example of institutional autonomy trumping sensible efforts to co-ordinate system-wide national improvement through a more carefully regulated market.

One strongly suspects that the government has soft-pedalled on fair access as a quid pro quo, to help secure some of their more threatening structural reforms.



May 2016

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