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The Office for Students respond to ‘Social mobility and elite universities’

  • 17 December 2019

This blog was kindly contributed by Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students and is written in response to HEPI’s recent report: ‘Social mobility and elite universities‘.

If you found the general election campaign frustrating, spare a thought for the nation’s public officials, who were unable to talk about previous, current or future government policy for the duration of it.  I’m grateful then to HEPI and to Lee Elliot Major for publishing their report on social mobility and elite universities on the day of the vote, which enables me freely now to respond.    

This is a topic that has concerned governments involving three different parties over the last two decades.  All have sought not only to increase participation, but also to improve fair access to those universities with the highest academic entry requirements.  As many of the responses to the HEPI report have highlighted, though, a successful higher education sector must be one that offers fair and equal access to different types of courses, experiences and outcomes.  And for this to work for all students, it cannot be confined to direct entry from school.      

England’s universities and colleges can be proud of the opportunities they have created for the generation of students that has benefited from their expansion.  But as all parts of society have increased their participation, the gaps in access and outcomes have changed relatively little.  Whether and where you study, and what you achieve in higher education, continues significantly to be determined by where you started from. 

Prior attainment is an important factor, but there is evidence that England is less progressive than other countries in the extent to which our universities consider the potential of students who have succeeded in their own context.  This relates not only to their ability to thrive on the course, but also the contribution they can make to a diverse educational environment in which students learn from each other.  Our current system gives less priority to this than the pursuit of high entry tariffs, no doubt influenced by the absence of diversity measures within the most influential league tables.  

The stratification that results from this has the effect of diminishing expectations in communities with low levels of participation.  This is less about aspiration than a realistic judgement of the likelihood of progression to all parts of higher education.  Students in these places need focused and sustained outreach, and a clear offer combining financial and academic support, to build a route through the barriers to entry.  They also need more inclusive cultures and practices within universities and colleges to support their success.

We expect universities and colleges to address these imperatives through the access and participation plans they agree with the Office for Students.  We are asking them to be more honest in their analysis of equity across the student lifecycle, to be more ambitious in the goals they establish for themselves, to align their investment more clearly with these objectives, and to evaluate and refine their approaches more rigorously.  For the institutions covered by the HEPI report, their priority will be to improve access, but for many others the focus has to be on student success.  

We make no apology for shifting the level of ambition and for challenging universities and colleges more robustly than ever before.  It’s of course the case that our goals will not be achieved at the current rate of progress.  That’s the point of the reforms we have made.  But these are entrenched patterns and need a generation to change.  So we are agreeing longer plans and trajectories with every university and college, and focusing our efforts now on the particular issues each one needs to address.

Having engaged with more than 200 universities and colleges on this during 2019, I am seeing a step change across the sector.  This continues, though, to be predominantly focused on improving opportunities for young people to access the existing models of provision.  This may be the right approach for some universities, but it won’t meet the needs of all students, or indeed the nation’s businesses and public services, during the coming years.  The next frontier, then, must be to transform the opportunities for adults in higher education.  That will be a top priority for 2020.          

1 comment

  1. John Baker says:

    A rousing address Chris, but I wondered if you could give some more information on the evidentiary detail behind some of the statements made.

    “as all parts of society have increased their participation” – Are you referrring to Polar statistics here, or something else? As has been pointed out many times these are a poor proxy for economic disadvantage (if this is broadly what is meant by all parts), particularly in metropolitan areas.

    “to improve fair access” – what metrics would you look at to learn whether these improvements have materialised? Again is this Polar, or something else? What do you mean by fair? Legally compliant?

    “what you achieve in higher education, continues significantly to be determined by where you started from” – The Dfe data shows that educational success is uncontrovertibly linked to family income, but are there other metrics you are using to analyse ‘where’ students start from, beyond this unverified data, and Polar,
    (Have presumed you weren’t referring to prior attainment here – unless that is a mid-stage ‘from’)

    You refer to “a realistic judgement of the likelihood of progression” as though it is the students reaching these conclusions, but isn’t it just as likely that it may be institutions themselves being forced to make these evaluations, because of the pressure to meet performance targets enshrined in other plans agreed with the regulator that do not give them the headroom to take risk on applicants for whom prior data suggests the likelihood of progress is reduced in comparison?

    Do you know if there is any body in the sector doing work to drive evaluation and change of approach to applicant assessment to explore and hopefully incentivise a shift in approach from providers? How is UCAS working with you on this?

    You talk of asking institutions to “align their investment more clearly with these objectives” but if there is no audit of activity, is there not a risk that generic marketing spend is re-branded for the purposes of high-level reporting?

    And lastly, pre-election talk suggested the return on SNC had been mooted, in a bid to contain the cost to the public purse. Isn’t there a real danger that all the ambition you express would be sacrificed on this altar is the rumours turn out to be true?

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