When the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) was established, it was described by a member of the shadow cabinet as “an interfering, manipulative, corrosive emblem of political correctness”.
Eight years later, when I was appointed Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, I was described at a parliamentary select committee hearing as a “poor communicator with little knowledge of access”. It’s now more than five years after that, and as OFFA prepares to hand over fair access regulation to the Office for Students next week, I think these accusations have been proved wrong.
Back in 2006, I’m not sure anyone would have thought that by 2017 we’d see an 82 percent increase in the number of young people from the most disadvantaged areas entering higher education or a 53 percent increase since my appointment in 2012 in the same group’s entry rate to those universities with the highest entry requirements.
Though there is much more to be done, this is significant progress.
Punching above our weight
The hard-working individuals at universities and colleges must take the credit for this progress. But we also contributed to this national success story, too. We have always punched above our weight – in the most recent financial year, with a budget of just £2.3 million, we leveraged over £860.1 million of investment by universities and colleges through access agreements.
We have used every possible opportunity to keep fair access on the public agenda, riding a wave of media interest that began with the furore around my appointment in 2012 (and by the way, if the huge improvements in my first year in post are anything to go by, the fuss turned out to be more help than hindrance).
OFFA has grown from just three members of staff to more than 30 across seven teams, and the number of institutions with access agreements has increased by 35 percent in the last six years, from 154 to 208. Our approach has evolved too, from the early, input-focused access agreements which were considered by many vice chancellors to be “the cost of staying in business”, to a more intelligent approach focused on outcomes, value for money and, following Martin Harris’ report on the impact of bursaries in 2010, evidence.
The introduction of higher fees undoubtedly placed increased pressure on OFFA to succeed, and to achieve what we have in this context shows just how wrong our detractors were.
We haven’t always got everything right. It is no secret that I consider the dramatic decline in mature and part-time student numbers one of the most pressing and profound concerns in the fair access landscape, and I do wish we had been able to do more to address this troubling trend.
And it is fair to say that we have picked the low-hanging fruit. We have made huge strides for those people who were qualified to apply to university but didn’t, and those who did apply but didn’t get in because of unconscious biases, structural issues or other factors outside of their control.
But, ultimately, we know that the core of the problem is attainment at school, which is, on average, substantially lower for young people from the most disadvantaged groups. It is unfortunate that OFFA has only recently been able to start putting real pressure on institutions to get involved in schools in a meaningful way, and I do hope to see further, faster progress in this area in future.
We have learned a lot about effective ways of regulating. I am enormously proud of the way my staff have been able to work with the sector to achieve the progress we’ve seen.
As they prepare to start their new jobs at the Office for Students next week, I want to share some of what they have told me about the ways of working they’ve really valued, such as: adding to the shared knowledge about access and participation by supporting and stimulating research; building relationships with different types of institutions to understand their unique contexts and challenges and facilitate more constructive conversations which have, over time, led to improvements in performance; and, acting as champions for access and being able to keep it firmly on the public agenda to ensure that it is a priority for policymakers.
We learned from our recent commissioned research on a “whole institution approach” about the need for a “top-down, bottom-up” approach to widening participation in institutions, where both structure and culture work towards more inclusivity and diversity. Our experience is that this is also a highly productive approach to regulation.
The “top-down” – statutory guidance, challenging expectations and potential sanctions – is made more effective by the “bottom-up” – building relationships on the ground with widening participation practitioners, facilitating collaboration and sharing of good practice, and developing research and toolkits to support the sector in meeting our expectations.
As the sun sets on OFFA and rises on the new Office for Students, we must not lose sight of the importance of long-term, sustained approaches to outreach. Governments are always under pressure to focus on short-term policy changes that they can deliver in time for the next election. But we’ve reached a stage in access and participation where we’re dealing with longstanding issues that cannot be solved in one term.
On this point, it’s over to the brilliant institutions and vibrant third sector which have it in their gift to sustain such an approach.
I’ve said it many times, but I don’t think it can ever be said enough: we owe it to people from all walks of life with the talent to benefit from higher education to achieve transformational change in access and participation. We owe it to them to enable them to change their lives for the better, as my university education changed mine.
I believe that one day there will be truly fair access, and it has been my pleasure and my pride to play a part in making that happen.