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OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD.

Last Friday the OfS closed its call for submissions to the consultation ‘A new approach to regulating access and participation in English higher education’. Even if the trend of an almost insignificant narrowing of the so called access ‘gap’ for the last seven years continues, we might see parity by the year 2204AD if we are lucky. 

The aim of the consultation appeared to be to seek endorsement of its already well worked access and participation plans. The consultation can be divided into sections related to: 
  • the cycles of approval and monitoring of access and participation plans 
  • annual monitoring and planning 
  • access and participation plan targets 
  • funding and investment in access and participation 
  • evaluation 
  • the approach to data, including the transparency information condition and an access and participation dataset. 
The TEFS response concentrates on funding for students and the approach to data gathering. 

The government environment that the OfS is working in. 

Success in widening participation and access will depend upon three critical areas. The targets that they set and how reaching these will ultimately be funded. Evaluation will also be dependent upon the nature of the data gathered and how it is presented. Overarching all of this is the availability of resources to enable equal access for all students. The contributory balance seems to be between that of university resources, loans and debt for students, family funding directly and lastly, government intervention. 

The OfS board papers are illuminating in this respect. Despite a commitment to being open, there are reserved areas that will not be published, as the most recent September 2018 papers illustrate well. The so called ‘providers’ are likely to have their blushes spared by a degree of anonymity with respect to their position on widening participation. However, as discussed in TEFS (August 31st 2018 ‘Office for Students or against students?’), the OfS be the subject of greater ministerial ‘guidance’ than anticipated. Such ministerial guidance from February 2018 stated that: 

“28. The OfS may wish to consider whether further progress could be made in this area through supporting the further exploration of the use of contextual data, such as the UCAS trial of their modernised contextual data service. The OfS will however, want to consider this in the context of acknowledging institutional autonomy and whilst maintaining academic standards”. 


“53. We expect the OfS to be firm with providers about the way their investment should be allocated, encouraging more investment in outreach and other activities, and less on financial support where appropriate. Outreach inspires students into higher education and maximises the numbers reached, whereas too much focus on bursaries can have the effect of cherry-picking a small number of students at the expense of others who also have the potential to benefit.” 

The latter instruction sums up the government’s philosophy quite well. It seems that generally providing resources for students from lower income backgrounds is of lesser importance than the so called ‘contextual admission’ criteria. The ‘providers’ are left with the monumental task of becoming ‘sales people’ for the government loan scheme. The have to hit ‘sales targets’ whilst trying to make inroads into an increasingly recalcitrant market. The idea of grants to replace loans for these students appears to be off the agenda. Indeed this is borne out by the OfS approach to the task so far. 

The OfS Student Panel report of July 2018 seems to go along with this approach and doesn’t address any possible deficit in the funding available for disadvantaged students or financial considerations with: 

“10. Access and participation (A&P): The panel were invited to comment on the OfS’s developing access and participation strategy. The discussion covered the importance of engaging with schools, what approach the OfS will take to encourage access for applicants with criminal records and the importance of high quality information, advice and guidance. The panel welcomed the proposal to explore integration of A&P priorities into the teaching excellence framework, as well as the proposal to move towards a more risk-based approach to monitoring but wanted to see more information on both of these in future. Finally, the panel were eager to explore how improvements can be made to the quality of student engagement at providers when A&P plans are developed.” 

The implications of this are profound as there seems to be a deficit in understanding of the pressure under which some students find themselves. It also leaves universities floundering in a situation whereby they are likely to be compelled to accept students with lower grades whilst agreeing that they should not offer financial support to those same students. The earlier Chief Executive’s report from the Office for Students 26 March 2018 perhaps set the scene for the direction being taken with: 

“7. The chief executive added the OfS’s duty to consider the interests of taxpayers and employers, as well as students.” 

How do students pay their way? 

It is obvious to anyone who has met and worked with students in a university that a significant number divert their time into earning enough to survive through a part-time job. The record in my experience has been assisting a student who was holding down a job for 34 hours per week. The problems of attendance and exhaustion were evident. Many others were committed to around working 20 hours per week and were struggling with attendance. Others that were supported by their family were under no such pressure. 

Presenting the data is easy isn’t it? 

The OfS has a strange way of presenting the data they have on the public side of their www site. You might judge for yourselves if it could be seen as misleading, deliberate or simply patronising. Whichever way one looks at it, the situation is not improving; at least up until 2016/17. 

Figure 1 shows the same data from the OfS presented in two very different ways. The population is assigned to geographical POLAR areas that are close to existing council wards. There are now four versions of POLAR with the latest POLAR 4 version using modified boundaries to the earlier versions (see TEFS 6th April 2018 ‘Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening’. They are divided into to five ‘quintile’ classes. The most disadvantaged areas with the least participation fall into Quintile 1, whereas Quintile 5 areas are most advantaged with the greatest participation. Figure 1A shows OfS data for the changes in the percentage participation of all students aged between 18 and 30 across the five Quintiles in England between 2010 and 2016. This is correctly scaled along the vertical Y-axis and illustrates that very little has changed. Those from the more advantaged areas are more likely to avail of Higher Education and this is progressive across the quintiles from 1 to 5. However, the OfS chose to illustrate the same data on their www site in a very different way as seen earlier this week and illustrated in Figure 1B. Note that the vertical Y-axis is expanded to a large degree to emphasise a small narrowing in the percentage gap. The logic behind calculating and presenting the ratio between Quintile 5 and Quintile 1 is quite frankly obscure. The statement from OfS in relation to this was: 

“This measure shows the progress the sector has made on access to higher education. The overall participation gap has reduced steadily in recent years. The overall gap between the groups of students who are most and least likely to take up higher education has reduced steadily in recent years. The more this gap narrows, the more we can say that background does not limit access to higher education. The most represented students were 2.3 times more likely to participate than the least represented in 2016-17. The more the gap in participation narrows between the most and least represented groups, the more we can say that background does not limit access to higher education. We see reducing this gap as a strategic priority”. 

“We will publish a target for this measure later in the year”. 

To even the most casual observer it would seem that the OfS is ‘clutching at straws’ and needs to ‘catch itself on’ as Belfast people say. 

What about participation by younger students? 

Most people, including parents, are interested in how readily younger students from 18 to 21 years access higher education. These make up the majority of those seeking to get on. 

Other OfS data reveals a starker situation with regard to access. Figure 2 shows the total number (A) of 18-21 year olds accessing higher education and the accompanying percentages (B). Since academic year 2013/14, there has been little improvement or narrowing of the so called ‘gap’. Indeed it paints a sorry picture of our divided society. 

The OfS note that, “Information on educational disadvantage is only displayed for young (under 21), UK-domiciled students. All other students are assigned to ‘Not applicable’.” 

What about access to the elite universities? 

The OfS has also considered this and has looked at the recruitment from the quintile areas for the top 30% of universities by tariff entry points. That is those universities that seek the highest level of qualifications. The results are of course even starker. Figure 3A shows the data presented as percentages on a realistic vertical axis scale. 
However, the OfS chose to present it again on an expanded scale. This time there is no hiding the fact that the gap has been widening slightly. This surely illustrates a failure of government policy going back many years. There is no other interpretation.

An earlier TEFS article looked at participation of students at universities from the lower Quintile 1 POLAR areas. This was illustrated according to the university’s position on the Times Higher Education ranking. It showed on the same graph the percentages and numbers and is presented again here in Figure 4. The reality is that students from the less advantaged areas attend the post-92 institutions to a greater extent. Participation at the Russell Group Institutions remains stubbornly the same from 2007 to 2017. 
What can we expect now? 

It seems obvious that the OfS will grind along as before unless some strategic input from government moves towards addressing the problem realistically. Setting targets for universities is not enough. Even if the trend of an almost insignificant narrowing of the so called ‘gap’ shown in Figure 1 for the last seven years continues, we might see parity by the year 2204. More likely is that the variation trend is only illusory and within the bounds of normal variation. Either way, the most patient amongst us will not wait for that long. The students must play a more significant role. The temporary student OfS Board member (Ruth Carlson, a civil engineering student at the University of Surrey) has recently been replaced by Martha Longdon who is a Neuropharmacology MSc student at Nottingham Trent University. Congratulations to Martha in this role. She has a difficult task representing student interests as a ‘go between’. However, she is also in a very distinct minority on the board. If she scans around the room – past Steve West, the VC of the West of England University who is a Podiatrist, she should look out for any other fellow scientists who might understand her experience and position. Her representative role is probably much wider and even more crucial than she expects. 

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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