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It could take a century to hit the latest official university access targets

  • 12 December 2019

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a new report on access to higher education which shows that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 96 years to hit the Office for Students’s targets for access to highly-selective universities.

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, shows:

  • without faster progress, it will take nearly a century for highly-selective universities in England to raise the participation rate of young people from the least advantaged areas to the existing participation rate for young people from the most advantaged areas, in line with the Office for Students’ plan to end equality gaps in higher education by 2037/38;
  • 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).

The report’s recommendations include:

  • more contextualised admissions – the authors argue 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 (eg 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; and
  • 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. 

Lee Elliot 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. The time has come for a simpler, more transparent, consistent and honest system of university admissions, recognising that A-Level grades and our 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.

Dr Pallavi Banerjee, the 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 the Higher Education Policy Institute, 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. People with disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to attend our 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.

Notes for Editors

  1. Lee Elliot Major OBE is Britain’s first Professor of Social Mobility, based at the University of Exeter. He was formerly Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust and co-authored the Penguin books Social Mobility and Its Enemies (2018) and What Works? (2019). He was the first in his family to attend university. Pallavi Amitava Banerjee is currently co-investigator on an ESRC funded project which evaluates the fairness of admissions in UK universities. She is also the institutional and statistical lead for the Transforming Transitions project funded by the Office for Students, which addresses challenges faced by BTEC students when transitioning to higher education. They are both members of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter, which is dedicated to improving social mobility through evidence-informed practice and policy.
  2. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.

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