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Universities need to close the access gap

The Office for Students have released a report on university admissions and access. The report, titled ‘Transforming opportunity in higher education’ comes following research into the access progression of universities, with the aim to “make greater and swifter progress in closing persistent gaps in outcomes for students from under-represented groups in higher education.”

The report outlines to universities that they must close the gap in access at England’s selective institutions, across the next five years. If the plans work, the number of disadvantaged students will rise to 6,500 each year from 2024-25.

The report states: “All universities and colleges wanting to charge the higher fee limit for tuition fees must have an access and participation plan approved by the OfS.The new approach reflects our ambition to make greater and swifter progress in closing persistent gaps in outcomes for students from underrepresented groups in higher education.”

The plan must set out what steps they will be taking to reduce the gaps in their institutions between different groups of students in relation to access to, success in and progression beyond higher education. It must include both year-on-year and longer-term targets for reducing these gaps, based on their own student populations and priorities.”

The report comes following a particularly interesting two weeks for access in Oxford, with the news that 69% of all undergraduate offers in this year’s cycle were made to students from state schools.

HMC (the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference) have responded to the report. They suggest that the inclusion of a higher number of the most ‘disadvantaged’ students is not representative of student socio-economic backgrounds. Mick Buchanan, HMC Executive Director, said: “We are confident that the exceptional results and soft skills that HMC schools provide will mean that our students will continue to get the university places they wish for in a competitive UK marketplace or at prestigious universities overseas.

“However, care is needed in starting actively to discriminate against individual young people on the basis of the class they were born into. The country needs all its young people to reach their potential if we are to create a bright new future for Britain post-Brexit.”

Ray Williams, Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs at Oxford SU has responded to the report and HMC’s reaction: “The OfS report shows that modest but welcome reform is on the table nationally, as it is here in Oxford. However there is still much more to do and the Student Union will continue to fight for a more diverse, representative Oxford.

“The knee jerk reaction from HMC shows just how out of touch they are with what modern day Oxford is trying to achieve in addressing educational inequality.”

Commenting on the report, a spokesperson from the University of Oxford detailed how, “Oxford’s admissions process is designed to identify academic potential and passion for a subject. This year, more than 69% of undergraduate offers were made to pupils attending state schools, and a record number to those from underrepresented backgrounds. A highly academically talented student with enthusiasm for their chosen subject has every chance of getting into Oxford, regardless of their background or where they live, and will continue to do so.

“We are committed to working with schools and the wider sector, and lobbying government for improved higher education opportunities for all. The changes we have brought in, with widespread support across the University and its colleges, have increased and diversified the pool of students applying to and receiving offers from Oxford. This year we saw a record of more than 23,600 students apply for just 3,300 places. Greater competition inevitably means more students will be disappointed, but we want the best talent possible for the outstanding education we offer.”

Oxford University has already began to close the gap in access and admissions: In the 2019-20 admissions cycle, 115 offers were made to students to study within the Opportunity Oxford bridging programme, which will begin in September. Alongside Opportunity Oxford, the University launched its Foundation Oxford programme, which from 2021 will offer places to up to 50 students. The scheme is partly inspired by Lady Margaret Hall’s pioneering Foundation Year, which “has shown that the one year intensive foundation year corrects gaps in prior attainment.” Buchanan of HMC continued to state that “Generally, contextual admissions are perfectly reasonable if used on a sophisticated, individual basis.”

His comment comes after the university stated that the reason they do not release the breakdown of school type within their state school admissions as: “Looking at an applicant’s school type in isolation is not an accurate measure of whether a student comes from a disadvantaged background. At Oxford we consider all information available on a candidate’s circumstances, including, any experience of being in care, their home postcode which provides information on if they live in an area of social and economic deprivation and low progression to higher education plus we look at if the school the student has attended has a high proportion of students eligible for FSM.”

Chris Millward, the OfS director for fair access and participation told the Guardian: “We expect providers to work towards these targets because they tackle two urgent priorities: the need to open up all of our universities to people from those communities where progress into higher education is lowest, and to ensure that every student has the same chance to succeed once they get there.”

The Office for Students is an independant public body, and is separate from central governemnt. The OfS was established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

Their work aims to ensure that all students have a “fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.”

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