Cambridge plans to reduce access targets rejected by Office for Fair Access

Cambridge’s proposed reduction of access targets has prompted a debate on how best to deal with failure in access and admissions

Cambridge student newspaper Varsity has reported that Cambridge University’s proposed reduction in access targets has been rejected by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), citing internal documents.

Every year, to justify charging tuition fees, each university must make an individual ‘access agreement’ with OFFA, an independent regulator. The admissions objectives usually target areas with a lower POLAR, or ‘Participation Of Local Areas’ scores. POLAR maps and scores are attributed to areas using data based on the proportion of young people who enter higher education, which varies by geographical and socioeconomic area.

Cambridge University hoped to include in their 2016 agreement a reduction in targets for intake from areas with the lowest POLAR scores after data from the Cambridge Admissions Office suggested the previous target was unachievable. The draft proposal lowered the target from 13 per cent to 12.5 per cent.

However, Professor Graham Virgo, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, told the University Council that “one comment indicated that the Director of OFFA had rejected the University’s POLAR target.” The director of OFFA, Professor Les Ebdon refused to comment on the state of the 2016 Cambridge agreement but did state, “I was clear that I wanted to see [universities] being ambitious with their targets, and I did not expect to see the ambition of their targets plateau.”

Cambridge student Ed Penn disagreed that the target reduction would necessarily have a damaging impact on students from poorer backgrounds. He commented online on Varsity’s article that “the reason the Cambridge Admissions Office wants to cut the POLAR target is because there simply aren’t enough students from such backgrounds achieving the right grades, not because they don’t want poor kids.”

Penn highlighted the need to focus “on the wider context of secondary education in the last 5 years – of teacher cuts, non-core subject provision slashed, and an increasing workload which leaves little time for Oxbridge support for those at the poorest-performing schools, rather than the standard ‘Cambridge is elitist’ clickbait.”

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Oxford University has made progress towards targets that is agreed with OFFA in 2012-13, especially in terms of students from ACORN (socio-economically disadvantaged areas) and POLAR areas, but it has yet to meet them before the 2016 deadline. Students in Oxford from ACORN regions has risen 1.8 per cent 2013-2015, but is yet to reach its 2016 target of 9 per cent.

Similarly, Oxford set a target to raise the proportion of students from neighbourhoods with low POLAR scores to 13 per cent by 2016-17.  In 2015 entry these students made up 11.5 per cent of overall accepted UK students, up nearly 2 per cent from 2013.

The target to increase the proportion of UK students coming from schools with historically limited progression to Oxford to 25 per cent by 2016-17, has also risen in 2015 entry to 20.3 per cent of overall accepted UK students, falling short of the target proportion.

However, Bethany Currie, a member of OUSU’s 2016 sabbatical team strongly disagreed that lowering access targets should be a solution to failure to meet objectives. She told Cherwell, “We’re pleased to see the university making significant moves towards its 2016-17 targets, particularly in their targeted ACORN and POLAR quintiles. But these are not overly ambitious targets and we still have some way to go to meeting them. The central University is obliged to work towards and meet OFFA targets, but the colleges are not. There is a lot of great access work done in the colleges but it would be great to have more colleges on board working towards these targets.”

“It is important to remember that the 4 OFFA targets themselves don’t actually capture all the access targets the University should be working towards, and the SU is working with the University to introduce an access target for BME students.”

“Obviously if universities do fall short on targets, simply lowering the target is not in any way a viable solution. The way to fix a problem is not to pretend that it isn’t there. I understand fears that more ‘Oxbridge miss access targets’ headlines might put off prospective students from these backgrounds, but we have to be honest about the issues in our admissions systems before we can hope to fix them. Our targets should be aspirational and challenging. The biases in our admissions system are serious, and our response should be serious too. We are among the leading educational institutions in the world, we should be leading on issues like this as well.”