"Horizon shift" called for in access regulation

08 August 2018

The Russell Group has called on the Office for Students (OfS) to help universities make a bigger impact in access and participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds by allowing them to set longer-term strategies.

Under current rules, universities must submit annual plans to the regulator, setting out how they are increasing the number of students from traditionally under-represented groups, including black students and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The plans also include support for students to succeed while they are studying and after graduation.

The group of leading universities is arguing for a move to five-year plans with appropriate milestones to allow for more ambitious strategies and targets.

Under the proposal, universities would still be subject to annual monitoring by the regulator to ensure their plans are on track. It is part of a five-point plan submitted to the OfS’ current review on how access and participation regulation can help universities diversify their student intake.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said: “Important progress has been made in recent years, but the unintended outcome of annual plans has been that universities are often forced to compete with each other on recruitment to meet short-term targets. It would be far better if institutions were supported in taking a longer view, with the emphasis on ensuring more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have university as a realistic aspiration and then helping them get the grades they need to progress to a top university.

“This would widen the pool of applicants from underrepresented groups and requires a kind of ‘horizon shift’ in the regulation, moving from an annual to multi-year and more collaborative perspective”.

Collectively Russell Group universities already work with around 8,000 schools across the UK every year, reaching hundreds of thousands of students, but a multi-year approach would reward more strategic partnerships. Universities could also be encouraged to work more closely together by recognising how an individual institution’s work may contribute to gains in access and participation at the regional and national level.

Russell Group universities are also calling on the regulator to take a more joined-up approach with the Department for Education, as well as schools, colleges, universities, charities and employers. With a growing range of initiatives now underway to raise attainment and aspiration and address persistent inequality for disadvantaged students, greater coordination will be vital to establish which interventions work best.

A better method for measuring deprivation would also ensure programmes can be better targeted at the right students. At present, universities rely on a measure of deprivation based on the postcode area in which a student lives, but this can be inaccurate as there can be affluent and poorer areas within one postcode.

Notes to editors

Russell Group data on widening participation:

  • between 2010/11 and 2015/16, the number of students eligible for free school meals at Russell Group universities more than doubled (increasing by 170% from 910 in 2010/11 to 2,455 in 2015/16) 
  • nearly 8 out of 10 young people at Russell Group universities studying for a full-time first degree now come from a state school background. 
  • the number of UK students from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds accepted to study at Russell Group universities has steadily increased in recent years, rising from 23,105 in 2007/08 to 34,850 in 2016/17 –an increase of 51%.
  • the gap in drop-out rates between young students from low participation neighbourhoods and others is smaller at Russell Group universities than for the sector as a whole (1.1 percentage points vs. 2.2 percentage points)
  • whilst there remains an attainment gap between BME and white students which our institutions are seeking to address, it is significantly smaller than at other HEIs (5 percentage points at Russell Group universities vs. 12 percentage points at other HEIs) and the gap is closing over time.

The Office for Students (OfS) is undertaking a review of its approach to access and participation plans, student premium funding, and the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. Further details are available here:  https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/news-and-blog/review-of-our-approach-to-fair-access-and-participation-in-higher-education/   

The Russell Group’s five-point plan sets out our priorities for the OfS in developing the access and participation plan process. Available here: https://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/policy/policy-documents/five-point-plan-on-access/


Russell Group submission to the access and participation plan review.

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