Donelan issues her doctor’s orders on access

The newspapers are furious with Universities Minister Michelle Donelan this morning over her orders to the sector on who to prioritise where courses are close to full.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

“Middle-class students could be forced to take gap years as the Government tells universities to prioritise disadvantaged pupils amid A-level grade chaos”, screams the Mail, with the Times and the Telegraph also upset.

The truth, as always, is a little more nuanced. The line in the Donelan letter is one where she’s reflecting agreement with the sector – it’s hardly a government demand. It’s one where the Office for Students (OfS) agrees too – CEO Nicola Dandridge said that students from disadvantaged backgrounds “must not be allowed to slip through the net as admissions decisions are made”, which is perhaps a reminder to admissions officers that the middle classes’ elbows tend to be sharper rather than an instruction to prioritise.

Is there reason to be concerned? Maybe. If you’re worried about access to high-tariff universities in general, Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall’s tweet from last Friday will be on your mind:


The unnamed VC might be right – but there’s nothing in the UCAS stats yet to suggest that’s true at a system level, and no way for us to know yet at an institutional level or even a tariff band level. You would have to assume that the problem is focussed on subjects like medicine, dentistry and veterinary where the lifting of numbers caps doesn’t have the instant capacity easing effect people would like it to have.

But that raises an interesting question – is there a clutch of disadvantaged applicants in these subjects about to be disappointed? Is there a WP problem in general in these subjects? If we’re worried about social mobility – especially in media friendly “golden ticket story” subjects like medicine that provide access into the professions – shouldn’t we know about institution-wide or even sector wide access performance at subject level?

The allegation is that to the extent to which high-tariff universities have improved on access, it’s been by expanding in courses like the humanities, social sciences and business studies. Is there decent data available that could refute that allegation – that could tell us that universities are not “playing the averages” in their APPs and are in fact doing very well in diversifying access to medicine, dentistry and so on? If only.

Report after report can’t get at these numbers, and instead uses “Russell Group” or high-tariff providers in general as its proxy. But that might mask a problem. If it’s true generally that expansion aids access but the cost of that is stratification by class, won’t it be true inside large selecting universities too?

If OfS is about to consult on implementing “minimum performance” baselines for “outcomes” at subject level; if it remains the case that the funding per student differs by subject; and if it is clear that some subjects provide direct access to the professions; surely now is the time to start at least telling us how big, selecting universities are doing on access at subject level?

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