Universities get smarter in their approach to fair access

Published on Thursday, 11 July 2013 15:26
Written by Scott Buckler

Universities and colleges are taking an increasingly strategic approach to improving access, using evidence and evaluation to tailor their approach so that they maximise their impact, the Office for Fair Access says today

Access agreements [note 1] for 2014-15, published today, show that universities and colleges are:

  • making more use of evidence, evaluation and strategic thinking to inform their investment in improving access to, and success in, higher education
  • continuing to set themselves challenging access targets
  • increasing their sustained, targeted outreach activity (that is, reaching out to disadvantaged communities to raise aspirations and attainment, e.g. mentoring and masterclasses, or forming and sustaining links with schools, colleges and employers)
  • investing more in student success (that is, supporting people through their courses and on to employment or postgraduate study, e.g. peer mentoring and help with study skills).

The agreements are the first to be approved by Professor Les Ebdon, who took over as Director of Fair Access to Higher Education in September 2012. He says:

"I am pleased that universities and colleges have risen to the challenges I set them and are spending increasingly smartly. Many are continuing to evolve their patterns of investment, using evidence and evaluation to focus on what works to improve access to higher education and successful outcomes for students from under-represented backgrounds.

"Universities that have further to go to broaden their student intake are doing more to reach out to people in communities where few people go to higher education, thus raising their aspirations and attainment. Outreach work is key to addressing the unacceptably large participation gap that remains at the universities with the highest entry requirements, so I welcome the greater focus in this area.

"Meanwhile, universities and colleges that already have more representative student populations are putting greater resources into supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds during their studies, so they are more likely to complete their courses, fulfil their potential and go on to their chosen career or postgraduate study. This is a key aspect of access. It includes, for example, programmes to help students settle in and feel part of university life, or mentoring by people already employed in the professions.

"Our work with the Higher Education Funding Council for England to develop a national strategy for access and student success will help improve the evidence base on access still further, and this will help universities take an even more tailored approach in future access agreements."

Universities and colleges predict in their new agreements that, by 2017-18 [note 2], they will be spending £707.5 million a year on access (up from a predicted £671.8 million by 2016-17 under 2013-14 agreements). This comprises:

  • £124.5 million on outreach, which is 12.6 per cent more than under 2013-14 agreements
  • £118.6 million on student success, which is 16.7 per cent more than under 2013-14 agreements
  • £464.5 million on financial support (e.g. bursaries, fee waivers and "in-kind" support such as discounted accommodation), which is 1.1 per cent more than under 2013-14 agreements.

Professor Ebdon comments:

"The most important thing is that universities and colleges continue to make measurable, sustained progress on access and student success. But expenditure levels are an indicator of commitment so this increasing investment is a good sign. I am particularly pleased to see rises in outreach and student success, meaning the overall balance of investment is shifting and getting smarter, in line with my guidance to institutions."

One hundred and sixty two universities and colleges submitted access agreements for 2014-15. OFFA's negotiations and discussions with those whose agreements were not initially in an approvable form achieved £6.4 million extra spending at 20 institutions and higher targets at 26. Agreement has now been reached in all cases.

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