New Office for Fair Access strategy

26 February 2015

Commenting on the OFFA strategic plan, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General and Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

“Ensuring our doors are wide open to able students from all backgrounds really matters to Russell Group universities. That’s why our universities are investing a huge amount of time, effort and resources and developing pioneering schemes to help close the access gap. Next year our universities in England will spend £234 million supporting poorer students and reaching out to pupils, teachers and parents across the country, with additional investments being made across the Devolved Administrations.

“OFFA is right to recognise the real progress that has been made over the last few years. In 2013 students eligible for free school meals (FSM) were 39% more likely to win places at leading universities than they were in 2011. And we are keen to make even more progress.

“However we are still concerned that the emphasis on targets and regulation could distract attention, effort and resources from the many successful access schemes run by Russell Group universities or even disincentivise universities from continuing with some activities in deprived areas which target the students who are the hardest to reach.

“Additionally, targets take no account of the fact, for example, that someone with four A*s at A-level might not have a strong chance of acceptance on a very competitive Medicine course, unless the A-levels are in the required subjects. Nor do they consider whether able students apply in the first place. And despite all our efforts to encourage applications from disadvantaged students, we can’t offer places to those who don’t apply.

“Universities are very committed to playing a key role in widening access but do not have the power to solve the root cause of the problem of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“The deep-rooted causes of under-representation from poorer backgrounds in higher education are complex and include a wide-range of problems that our universities alone cannot solve such as under-achievement at school and poor advice and information for students. 

“For example, of the 8,500 students eligible for free school meals who took three A-levels in 2010/11, only 546 achieved three or more A* or A grades. As institutions with high academic standards, our universities face particular difficulties as they work hard to increase fair access and attract students with the most talent, potential and ability from all backgrounds.

“We want many more students from non-traditional backgrounds to get good grades in the right subjects and apply to our universities, who are determined to play their part in making that happen.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Russell Group report Opening doors: Understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access explores the root causes of the under-representation of students from poorer backgrounds at leading universities, and shows how Russell Group universities are helping to overcome them. 
  2. In 2015/16 the 20 Russell Group universities in England alone will spend £234 million from additional fee income on scholarships, fee waivers, bursaries and outreach work, as well as further funding from philanthropic and other sources.

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