Inequality in accessing higher education is a persistent and pressing issue, and one which comes at a cost to both the individual and the country. Although selective universities have made significant strides to improve their rates of access for the most disadvantaged people in the country, we recognise the pace needs to pick up.
Our new report sets out a challenge for universities, government and regulators through an action plan to deliver transformational change over a ten-year period, with a view to achieving this ambition.
The report was written before the current Covid-19 crisis. If anything, the pandemic has made it more important than ever to ensure the progress our sector has made is not lost. In fact, as universities rethink their approach to access and participation, there is an opportunity to develop policy which could transform access to higher education.
Russell Group universities are already committed to diversifying their own campuses, and to ensuring those students who have experienced the most significant barriers to entry are supported all the way through their university journey. Last year, our members in England published ambitious access and participation plans, showing their commitment to making radical change. Our members in the Devolved Nations are also planning and delivering major initiatives.
We’re determined to go further. Based on an analysis of successful widening participation initiatives, we have identified five principles of good practice that our universities are committed to embedding across all of our activities.
First, we will remedy gaps in evaluation – committing to embedding best practice across all access and participation initiatives. We will build on opportunities for collaboration between our own institutions and others. Accountability for widening participation will come from our university senior teams – taking genuine ownership of this agenda beyond signing off access and participation plans. We will be transparent around our admissions processes, and what they mean for individual applicants. We also commit to co-developing our initiatives with parents, teachers and students when it’s appropriate to do so.
Access and participation regulation
Alongside universities committing to improving their practices, there is a need for robust regulation which incentivises the sector to target the right students and encourages universities to be collaborative instead of always competing with each other to meet access targets.
The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need to make the right data available at the right time, so universities can support students onto their campuses. In the long run, we may also want to introduce a new household income dataset to ensure universities are reaching the most disadvantaged students.
However, even with universities embedding good practice across all their access and participation efforts, supported by the right regulatory incentives, the data shows that the long-term targets to close equality gaps will be impossible to meet through a focus on university admissions alone.
The Office for Students (OfS) has set a target to eliminate the gap in access to higher tariff universities between students from the most underrepresented areas and those from the most highly represented areas (POLAR quintiles 1 and 5, respectively) by 2039/40.
Based on our modelling, this target can only be met if:
- The number of quintile 5 students (those from the most highly represented areas) entering higher tariff universities remains effectively frozen, increasing only at 0.7 per cent per annum (the average growth rate in the 18-year-old population) rather than taking account of growing demand, and,
- The number of quintile 1 students (those from the most under-represented areas) entering higher tariff universities increases by 10 per cent year-on-year, from around 7,170 students in 2019 to 53,100 in 2040 (an overall proportional increase of 640 per cent).
In 2019 only 2,500 quintile 1 students accepted to study at university achieved grades AAB or better, compared to 20,995 quintile 5 students. Proportionally, only 20 per cent of quintile 1 students accepted to study attained grades AAB or better, whilst double that number (39 per cent) of quintile 5 students did so. If these attainment patterns continue, then higher tariff institutions will be required to do the following to meet the target set by OfS:
- By 2026, higher tariff institutions would need to recruit all current quintile 1 higher education entrants with 3 A-levels regardless of the grades they have achieved.
- By 2035, higher tariff institutions would need to recruit all quintile 1 entrants to the whole higher education system including those currently going to medium and lower tariff institutions, regardless of whether they have studied academic qualifications or not.
- By 2036 and onwards, higher tariff institutions would need to recruit quintile 1 applicants who do not currently get placed at all in the higher education system.
It is clear a radical change is needed. Work needs to start much earlier in the education lifecycle to address the underlying causes of lower attainment and expectations which present barriers to students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.
A national strategy
Achieving truly transformational change will require a joined-up approach with partnership working between universities and a range of other stakeholders including schools, colleges, local authorities, charities, employers and relevant public services.
A national strategy is the key to achieving this. But it will require a step change in government policy with new structures, funding and policies to enable and encourage partnerships across agencies, government departments and all relevant stakeholders. We propose that the government should create a new office for tackling inequality with the aim of ensuring buy-in, engagement and coordination across government departments.
Similar strategies have been adopted in English policy, and overseas. The ten-year teenage pregnancy strategy resulted in the under-18 conception rate falling by half as a result of joined-up action at the national and local level.
Similarly, experiments overseas have also shown how complex social problems can be tackled effectively. The widely praised Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York, has taken a holistic approach to addressing a wide range of issues faced by children and families including housing problems, failing schools, gun crime, drug use and health issues. There is no reason a national strategy, taking lessons from these examples, could not be adopted for widening access and tackling inequality.
A new normal should not mean a recreation of business as usual. Rather, there is a golden opportunity to make access to higher education a critical part of this government’s agenda.