A commitment to equality and diversity aligns closely with the public purpose and mission of higher education, but there is also a broader imperative to get this right.
For our economy and society to thrive in future, we need to draw on all the talent available to the UK. Ensuring everyone has access to a high-quality education will be essential for this. Through its new regulatory approach, the Office for Students wants to promote equal outcomes between different groups of students with the intention to achieve transformational change.
The ambition is laudable, but will the incentives the regulator is putting in place achieve the desired result?
The ability to identify the right target groups of students in efforts to widen access and support student success is crucial. Detailed OfS guidance strongly encourages institutions to use the POLAR classification when setting targets, an indicator which measures the proportion of the young population that participates in HE in any given area.
While POLAR can be useful in conjunction with other measures, a 2016 report from the Social Mobility Advisory Group recommended it should not be used in isolation. Arguments about the limitations of POLAR are well-rehearsed, especially as they apply in large urban areas. For example, in London only 1.3% of neighbourhoods are classified as amongst the least represented (i.e. quintile 1) according to POLAR despite London having a greater proportion of income-deprived children than anywhere else in the country.
But this is not just a London issue. Research from the University of Durham showed that only 13% of students who were eligible for Free School Meals lived within POLAR Q1 areas across the country.
If institutions are encouraged to use POLAR as the sole measure to identify and target under-represented students, they will be missing many of those from the most socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Further efforts are needed to ensure a range of indicators are available which are accurate and effective in identifying under-represented and disadvantaged students. Work the OfS and UCAS are doing to improve access to existing datasets and to develop new measures is therefore welcome. In the meantime, the OfS should confirm formally that measures other than POLAR are acceptable for use in target-setting for the forthcoming round of plans.
Mind the gaps
The OfS has set itself a number of stretching targets to eliminate the gaps in access, continuation, and degree outcomes for students from different backgrounds. These targets are reflected in the guidance the regulator has set for universities in developing their plans.
But in seeking to close gaps in access for students from different backgrounds, the OfS is encouraging institutions to cap, or even cut, places for students from areas with higher rates of progression to university. If the number of entrants from all backgrounds continues to increase, the gap between different groups will remain static and the targets the OfS has set will be missed.
The Education Secretary was recently quoted as saying he does not want to see “fewer children from any one particular background” progressing to university. Capping or even cutting numbers runs counter to ministerial priorities for higher education and could even leave institutions open to legal challenge. It is also worth remembering that the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 made it clear that HE providers have freedom to set criteria for student admissions and that the OfS has a duty to protect institutional autonomy in areas such as this.
Focusing solely on the gaps between students from different backgrounds also obscures trends in access and outcomes for under-represented students themselves, as it means looking at their experience only in relation to their more advantaged peers. For example, while the average gap in continuation between quintile 1 and quintile 5 students is five percentage points at one higher tariff institution – the same as the English sector average – the continuation rate for quintile 1 students at this institution is 95%, better than the sector average continuation rate for quintile 5 students. So a student at this institution from an area which is significantly under-represented will be as likely to continue on their course as the average English student would be from an area which is significantly over-represented in HE.
This illustrates the very different outcomes students from under-represented backgrounds achieve depending on where they study. While this may be related to other factors such as prior attainment at school, it is nevertheless important information and relevant to any assessment of performance in widening access and supporting student success.
Competition versus collaboration
There is an argument that encouraging universities to compete fiercely for students from under-represented backgrounds is a good thing, at least to ensure there are as many opportunities for these students to progress to university as possible.
But encouraging competition to the exclusion of opportunities to collaborate will limit the effectiveness of efforts to widen access. Competition alone is unlikely to help when too few students from under-represented backgrounds apply in the first place: English students in quintile 5 areas are still 2.8 times more likely to apply to university than those in quintile 1 areas. Under pressure from the OfS to recruit as many students from target groups as possible, institutions may be deterred from pooling resources in the same region to maximise the impact of their work as they do now.
Universities should be accountable for their performance in diversifying their intake and in their efforts to support students from all backgrounds to succeed on their courses and beyond. But placing too much weight on blunt measures and targets is unlikely to lead to the kind of transformational change the regulator and the sector want to see.
Addressing social inequality throughout the education system will take time and universities have a key role to play. They will have a much greater chance of success if they are able to work alongside and in partnership with a range of other stakeholders including schools, local communities and relevant public services as part of a joined-up Government strategy.