Rus­sell Group at­tacks ‘short­term’ ap­proach to mon­i­tor­ing ac­cess

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Anna.mckie@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Eng­land’s most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties have claimed that a short-ter­mist ap­proach from reg­u­la­tors is ham­per­ing their ef­forts to im­prove the di­ver­sity of their stu­dent in­take.

In a sub­mis­sion to the Of­fice for Stu­dents, the Rus­sell Group says that in­sti­tu­tions should be al­lowed to sub­mit ac­cess agree­ments ev­ery five years, in­stead of an­nu­ally. The mis­sion group claims that mul­ti­year plans would “help uni­ver­si­ties make a big­ger im­pact in widen­ing ac­cess”.

If they wish to charge higher level fees, uni­ver­si­ties must have sign-off from the OfS on their ac­cess agree­ments, which set out how they will in­crease their re­cruit­ment of and sup­port for stu­dents from un­der­rep­re­sented groups, such as those from eth­nic mi­nori­ties or lower so­cio-eco­nomic back­grounds.

The Rus­sell Group is of­ten crit­i­cised for many of its mem­bers’ slow progress on widen­ing ac­cess and last month the OfS sin­gled out the uni­ver­si­ties of Ox­ford and Cam­bridge for fail­ing to meet prom­ises to con­duct eval­u­a­tion of bur­sary spend­ing made in their last ac­cess agree­ments.

Sarah Stevens, the Rus­sell Group’s head of pol­icy, told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion that five-year plans would al­low uni­ver­si­ties to put more em­pha­sis on reach­ing dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents from an early age and to im­prove their work with schools.

“Widen­ing ac­cess to univer­sity is a com­plex en­deav­our and it re­quires a sus­tained ap­proach over time. Re­quir­ing uni­ver­si­ties to set ac­cess and par­tic­i­pa­tion plans that last for just one year is not the most sen­si­ble way of ap­proach­ing it,” she said. “Fo­cus­ing on set­ting longert­erm strategies, with co­or­di­na­tion from gov­ern­ment to im­prove un­der­stand­ing of what works in widen­ing ac­cess, would re­ally help to ac­cel­er­ate the pace of change.”

Tim Brad­shaw, the mis­sion group’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, added that “the un­in­tended out­come of an­nual plans has been that uni­ver­si­ties are of­ten forced to com­pete with each other on re­cruit­ment to meet short­term tar­gets”. He ar­gued that a “hori­zon shift” was needed in the reg­u­la­tion.

How­ever, other sec­tor ex­perts have ex­pressed scep­ti­cism about whether longer-term plans would boost widen­ing ac­cess.

Graeme Ather­ton, di­rec­tor of Lon­don-based widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion net­work Ac­cessHE, said that the cur­rent sys­tem did not pre­vent uni­ver­si­ties from plan­ning in ad­vance.

“There are four-year mile­stones that you have to set. Writ­ing the agree­ment can be painstak­ing, but they are valu­able things to have,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to di­lute what has, de­spite some crit­i­cism sur­round­ing how uni­ver­si­ties are ac­tu­ally us­ing their re­sources, been very ef­fec­tive in en­sur­ing widen­ing ac­cess has re­mained a pri­or­ity for ev­ery in­sti­tu­tion.”

Dr Ather­ton ar­gued that re­duc­ing the fre­quency of ac­cess agree­ments would “re­duce the amount of pub­lic scru­tiny about how uni­ver­si­ties op­er­ate”, and sug­gested that this would be un­wise.

Jac­que­line Steven­son, head of re­search in the Sh­effield In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion at Sh­effield Hal­lam Univer­sity, ex­pressed con­cern that call­ing for five-year ac­cess agree­ments was a “dis­trac­tion tech­nique”.

“There is noth­ing stop­ping uni­ver­si­ties from set­ting five-year strategies now,” she said. “Uni­ver­si­ties can de­velop their own in­sti­tu­tional strat­egy for how­ever many years they want and then use the an­nual plan to re­port on it.”

Pro­fes­sor Steven­son said that, rather than call­ing for reg­u­la­tory change, Rus­sell Group uni­ver­si­ties “need to be in­ter­ro­gat­ing why they have been un­able to make their own progress”.

“With this pro­posal there is the dan­ger that you are al­low­ing peo­ple to de­lay ac­tion,” she added. “The an­nual re­ports give an im­per­a­tive that it has to be rapid, be­cause we can­not go on not chang­ing the sec­tor suf­fi­ciently. Progress has been too slow for too long.”

Restricted en­try the Of­fice for Stu­dents sin­gled out Cam­bridge and Ox­ford for fail­ing to meet prom­ises to con­duct eval­u­a­tion of bur­sary spend­ing made in their ac­cess agree­ments

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