The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s annual state of the nation report is making headlines today following its stark warning that we’re in danger of becoming a permanently divided nation.
Clearly, at the time of writing, we haven’t yet been able to read the full 338-page report or study its recommendations in detail. However, looking at the chapter relating to access to universities and the professions, several things catch our attention.
Firstly, there’s the suggestion that OFFA’s remit should include access to postgraduate as well as undergraduate study. Clearly, any changes to our remit are a matter for Ministers and Parliament. However, if the Government does decide to introduce subsidised loans for postgraduate tuition fees, then there clearly would be a strong argument for such a change. In line with the national strategy for access and student success which we developed together with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, we already take a whole student lifecycle approach to access, ensuring that disadvantaged students not only get in to university but are also supported to succeed and get on. As the Commission points out, enabling us to promote and safeguard access to postgraduate study as well as undergraduate study would ensure that barriers to access are considered at all levels of study in an institution.
Secondly, we note with interest the recommendation that by 2020 a quarter of the money spent on access should be invested in outreach activities, including supporting strategic partnerships between universities and schools. The report recognises the impact that OFFA has already had in rebalancing spend under access agreements, with a 33 per cent increase in spend on activities to improve access, student success and progression in access agreements for 2015-16. The current weight of evidence suggests that investment in ‘activity’ has more impact on access than, for example, investment in financial support. That is why, in line with this report’s recommendation, we will continue to encourage institutions to rebalance access agreement spend in this way.
Thirdly, we were also interested to read the recommendation that we should move to a more risk-based approach in our assessment of access agreements, with currently annual agreements becoming three-year strategic agreements, and OFFA having the power to intervene where an institution is not making sufficient progress. This proposal certainly merits exploration – for example, it would help reinforce a strategic approach to access agreements and a greater focus on outcomes rather than inputs.
Finally, we were pleased that the Commission acknowledged the key role we play as access regulator in holding universities to account. We strongly believe that our independence and single focus on access enable us to drive forward greater progress than would otherwise be achieved. The sector is making progress in improving access to higher education – albeit slower than we would like in some places – but the battle is still far from won.
HEPI is very grateful to Les Ebdon for responding to the new report on this website.