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HE: Ensuring fair access and participation for all students

Nicola Turner

By Nicola Turner MBE, Head of Access and Participation, Sector Practice – Office for Students

Higher education transforms lives. It is also important for a cohesive and just society, as well as for a productive economy. As the independent regulator of higher education in England, the OfS’ aim is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience that enriches their lives and careers. We do this by regulating the higher education providers on our register to make sure they are delivering positive outcomes for their students and, at a sector level, regulating to create the conditions for informed choice, competition and continuous improvement in students’ interests.

Ensuring that students from all backgrounds with the ability and desire to do so can access, succeed in and progress from higher education, is the first of our four strategic objectives. Equality of opportunity is therefore fundamental to our regulatory approach.

A bold new approach

During the past 18 months, we have made radical reforms to the regulation of access and participation, underpinned by ambitious and long-term goals.

These reforms reflect a bold new approach to supporting equality and diversity through higher education. Although there are more students from underrepresented groups, there are still wide gaps in access and outcomes between the most and least advantaged groups.

Eliminating equality gaps

We want to see transformational change, and have set ambitious goals to achieve equality of opportunity in higher education within 20 years by eliminating the gaps in:

  • Entry rates at the most selective providers between the most and least represented groups
  • Drop-out rates between the most and least represented groups
  • Degree outcomes between white and black students, and between disabled and non-disabled students.

Our new guidance on access and participation plans challenges providers by focusing on their ambition, the credibility of their plans, and the outcomes they achieve, rather than their levels of investment. However, we are continuing to look closely at providers that propose to spend less to ensure they deliver on the commitments in their plan.

Instead of the old annual cycle, the frequency of written submissions that providers make will now be based on the likelihood of them making sufficient progress in improving equality of opportunity. This will reduce regulatory burdens for universities and colleges that are doing well, enabling us to intervene and focus on any low ambition, slow progress or poor practice.

As well as regulatory pressure, we are also providing support. For example, to help providers identify gaps between underrepresented students and their peers within their institution, we have published data dashboards for all providers on our register. Some are making stronger progress than others, and we will use the data to ensure that all providers make significant improvements in reducing gaps year-on-year.

So how have providers responded? We are currently assessing the latest round of access and participation plans, and will publish information about the whole sector in the autumn once most assessments and discussions with providers are complete. Early signs are encouraging, with providers demonstrating a stronger self-awareness of their current performance, and greater ambition in how they plan to reduce gaps.

The importance of evaluation

Our approach also emphasises the importance of evidence and evaluation to get the maximum impact and value for money from activity and investment. So, we are working to support the sector to meet the challenges of generating, sharing and using evidence of effective practice – for example by producing practical guidance and toolkits.

We are also funding (to the tune of £4.5 million over three years) a new independent ‘what works’ centre – the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO-HE) – to enhance the quality and use of evidence in social mobility policy and practice.

Commitment to change

The goals we have set are ambitious. But they are realistic if universities and colleges make equality a priority and take on the actions available to them.

Together, the combination of pressure on providers and support for their work can make a lasting difference to the many thousands of people who have the talent to excel in higher education but are being held back by factors outside their control. Universities and colleges have told us that they are ambitious and committed to change. We will work with them closely to ensure that their actions support these ambitions.