Access Agreements: progress made and challenge ahead

Today OFFA publish their annual report on Access Agreements made in 2014/15 and progress against them. This year’s report is likely to generate particular interest. The sector faces some stretching targets, and there are doubts as to whether these will be met.

It is also the first time that the report includes institutional breakdowns. While OFFA stresses that these must not be used to compile league tables, faced with a great deal of wider policy pressure to meet WP targets and demonstrate graduate outcomes, it is likely that officials will be casting a close eye over the results.

The findings in brief

Some of the particularly interesting findings include that:

Institutions invest considerable sums in widening participation: £725 million was invested in 2014/15, representing 29.8 percent of higher fee income. Alongside other forms of spending, total investment in widening participation in 2014-15 was £1.4 billion. And investment varies considerably across institutions – from approximately £200,000 at some to £21,000,000 at others.

While many targets are being met, a considerable number are not: in relation to high-level outcomes, 70 percent of targets had been met/exceeded/ or were on course to being met. In 17 percent of cases progress was less than anticipated and in 11 percent no/negative progres had been made.

Progress varies considerably at institutional level: while 34 institutions had met or were on course to meet all of their targets, and 10 of these had met or exceeded all of their targets, five had made progress against less than half and a further 24 had made some progress (although in some cases this was less than anticipated). The total number of targets set also varies considerably, from one to 20.

Those with the furthest to go are making the least headway: 69 per cent of institutions with a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds received a self-assessment score of four or higher, compared to 43 per cent of institutions with a lower proportion.

Institutions continue to invest considerable sums in financial support, but this is falling: in 2014-15 institutions committed 68 per cent of their total spend to financial support, a reduction from 69 per cent in 2013-14 and 74 per cent in 2012-13.

Success in raising participation among part-time and mature students has been more limited: positive progress was made against 75 per cent of targets related to increasing representation among mature learners, and 61 percent in relation to part-time students. This compares to 93 per cent in relation to progress to support access for students with a disability.

What do the findings mean?

The findings make for interesting reading, not least because they demonstrate the very significant sums of money that has been invested in widening participation with mixed results. While the report shows that participation among under-represented groups has been increasing, it has slowed in recent years: in the past year there was a 4 per cent increase in entry rates among the most disadvantaged, compared to a 9 per cent increase in the previous year.

The variation between institutions is also noteworthy. Evidence that those with the fewest numbers of under-represented students are doing least well is particularly interesting given that these institutions will be committing higher proportions of fee income to widening access, begging a question as to how effectively this money is being spent. For example, you have to ask whether it is fair that 8,000 students from the University of East London have £6 million in financial support to share between them, while 2000 students at the University of Oxford receive access to nearly double the funds (£10.2 million). Particularly when there is research underway that suggests that financial support is important, and information on bursaries is very limited. In their response, the Russell Group point out that pupils on free school meals were 39% more likely to enter high tariff institutions than they were in 2011.

The challenge is also in good evaluation and knowing what works. Indeed, evaluation and effective targeting are identified as key among those institutions doing well. While outreach activity is important, it has faced criticisms for being more like marketing activity with individual institutions competing to attract students. At a time when careers advice has experienced a £200 million deficit, there is an argument that young people might benefit from independent advice and support while they are at school. The recent report by SMF also made the case for focussing more keenly on student attainment at school.

With the White Paper due out next week, we will soon know more about the future of OFFA and the Government’s proposals for widening participation. If the recently leaked Government documents are anything to go by, one thing we do know is that officials will be under pressure to meet the WP target. It may well be that we see some more radical proposals emerge.

You can read OFFA’s full report, ‘Outcomes for access agreement monitoring for 2014/15’ here.

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