Ac­cess tsar at­tacks ‘com­pla­cency’ on widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - chris.haver­gal@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

English higher ed­u­ca­tion’s ac­cess tsar has warned that some uni­ver­si­ties risk be­com­ing “com­pla­cent” on widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion, af­ter what he de­scribed as “one of the tough­est” rounds of ne­go­ti­a­tion yet.

Statis­tics re­leased by the Of­fice for Fair Ac­cess on 23 Au­gust re­veal that, of 123 higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions that had ac­cess agree­ments ap­proved, nearly three-quar­ters – 89 – were told that their ini­tial sub­mis­sions were not am­bi­tious enough.

Les Eb­don, the direc­tor of fair ac­cess for higher ed­u­ca­tion, said that he had come “close” to re­fus­ing some providers’ ac­cess agree­ments, a move that would see their tu­ition fees limited to £6,000 a year.

Pro­fes­sor Eb­don said that some in­sti­tu­tions felt that they could “rest on their lau­rels” af­ter con­tin­ual growth in the pro­por­tion of stu­dents from less ad­van­taged back­grounds en­ter­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion.

“It has been one of the tough­est years of ne­go­ti­a­tion yet, and we came close to hav­ing in­sti­tu­tions with­out an ac­cess agree­ment, which would be a first,” he said. “Why was that? I think it might have been com­pla­cency.

“Be­cause peo­ple have made progress, they thought they could re­lax a bit, but I am look­ing for fur­ther, faster progress. I’m look­ing for ac­cel­er­a­tion, I’m not look­ing for peo­ple to rest on their lau­rels.”

Offa’s ne­go­ti­a­tions re­sulted in 77 uni­ver­si­ties – nearly two-thirds – agree­ing more stretch­ing tar­gets, and 41 – a third – agree­ing to spend more on widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Pro­fes­sor Eb­don said that the re­moval of stu­dent num­ber con­trols in Eng­land left uni­ver­si­ties with no ex­cuse not to fo­cus on ac­cess.

“Some uni­ver­si­ties have ex­panded quite rapidly since the cap came off,” he said. “I saw that as an op­por­tu­nity for them to in­crease the num­ber of stu­dents from low­par­tic­i­pa­tion neigh­bour­hoods, and where that’s not hap­pened, I’m dis­ap­pointed.”

One of the key stick­ing points in ne­go­ti­a­tions was uni­ver­si­ties’ work with schools to raise at­tain­ment for dis­ad­van­taged pupils.

Al­though the gov­ern­ment has stepped back from a re­quire­ment for higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions to spon­sor schools if they wish to charge higher fees – Pro­fes­sor Eb­don de­scribed this as “yes­ter­day’s de­bate” – all uni­ver­si­ties were re­quired to demon­strate how they were work­ing with the sec­ondary sec­tor to im­prove at­tain­ment.

Some in­sti­tu­tions are spon­sor­ing free schools or univer­sity tech­ni­cal col­leges, while oth­ers are con­tribut­ing to cur­ricu­lum de­sign, help­ing to train teach­ers or shar­ing re­sources.

The Offa re­port also re­veals that more than half (52 per cent) of ac­cess agree­ments de­tailed ac­tiv­i­ties to im­prove ac­cess for white work­ing­class males, who are less likely to en­rol in higher ed­u­ca­tion than any

other group, up from 34 per cent last year. Six­teen per cent of providers have set tar­gets in this area, up from 11 per cent last year.

Pro­fes­sor Eb­don said that “the im­por­tance of in­vest­ing in your­self seems to be recog­nised more by some other com­mu­ni­ties than tra­di­tional work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties”.

“If there was a large em­ployer in town, the ex­pec­ta­tion was that there would be a job for you down that mine or in that fac­tory. That sit­u­a­tion no longer ap­plies,” he said.

“Uni­ver­si­ties need to recog­nise the par­tic­u­lar needs of this group: here is a group that may feel that there are not op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause the tra­di­tional ones are not there; they have got to reach out to them to ex­plain the new op­por­tu­ni­ties of work in the new econ­omy.”

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