Offa guidance on 2014-15 access agreements

17 January 2013

Commenting on Offa guidance on access agreements for 2014/15, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

“All our universities are committed to ensuring that every student with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed has the opportunity to gain a place at a leading university, whatever their background.

“We are pleased that Offa recognises - as we have long said - that the main causes of under-representation of disadvantaged groups include lower attainment at school, and a lack of advice on subject choices. 

“We also agree that outreach, including early outreach in schools, is vital. That’s why many of our members already sponsor academies and work directly with schools, including with pupils from a young age or where there is little history of young people progressing to leading universities. 

“Our universities run activities including identifying gifted and talented pupils, providing mentors, running Saturday classes and summer schools to provide taster weeks at leading universities, and free conferences for teachers to explain what students need to achieve. Many of our universities work together with schools and colleges on these activities.  But there should be no one-size-fits-all approach to this, and individual institutions are best placed to determine the partnerships and outreach priorities for their circumstances. 

“We also welcome OFFA’s recognition that outreach schemes are often very successful at inspiring disadvantaged students to study at a range of other colleges or universities and that it is very difficult to ensure that these students will actually apply to the universities funding their outreach schemes. 

“While we agree it makes sense for universities to evaluate the impact of their access measures we do hope Offa will fully recognise the challenges and complexities of doing this. 

“Offa is also keen for institutions to reduce the amount they spend on financial support for poorer students, and in some cases institutions may decide that is appropriate. But bursaries are an important weapon in the battle to overcome barriers caused by lack of information and misconceptions about leading universities. They also allow students from all backgrounds to succeed on their course and exploit the opportunities that higher education can offer, including field trips and extracurricular activities.

“It’s essential that OFFA continues to recognise the limitations of the HESA performance indicators as a measure of institutional success in widening access. Universities must continue to have scope to set their own targets and measures of progress in improving access. 

“Our universities will pump millions more into a broad range of outreach activities and financial support over the next few years, with spending rising fast. We do, however, have limited funds and we need to make sure enough is also being spent on ensuring all students receive the first-class education they deserve.”  

Notes for editors

  1. In paragraph 106 of the Offa guidance they say: “the main cause of under-representation of disadvantaged groups include lower attainment at school, and a lack of advice on the best choices of GCSE/A level subjects and degree courses.”
  2. Many of our universities are involved in academies, UTCs and free schools. The University of Birmingham has applied to set up a Free School.  The University of Bristol sponsors the Merchants’ Academy. Cambridge University Health Partners is a lead partner in Cambridge University Technical College (UTC). King’s College London and Queen Mary are both trustees of the St Paul’s Way Trust School in Tower Hamlets, along with the University of East London and the Institute of Education.  The University of Liverpool co-sponsors, with Granada Learning, North Liverpool Academy and is one of five co-sponsors of Enterprise South Liverpool Academy. They are also a partner in Liverpool Life Sciences UTC to open in 2013 and Birkenhead UTC, due to open in 2014.  Nottingham University sponsors Samworth Academy and also Nottingham UTC. The University of Sheffield sponsors Sheffield UTC. UCL is the sole sponsor of the UCL Academy in Camden and they are also a lead partner in the East London UTC. The University of Warwick has a strategic relationship with the RSA Academy Tipton and is a lead partner in the WMG Academy for Young Engineers.
  3. Many of our universities already work with younger pupils. These include: The University of Liverpool’s Professor Fluffy project is targeted at young people aged between 9 and 11 and aims to raise awareness of higher education. The University of Sheffield and Queen’s University Belfast also run the programme. The University of Manchester runs Primary Awareness Days on campus where pupils get to taste a degree course, explore the campus and meet with current students. Newcastle University offers Primary Schools in the North East the opportunity to have a current undergraduate student work alongside teachers and offer support in the classroom. The University of Nottingham works with education charity IntoUniversity whose FOCUS Programme works with whole classes to introduce the concept of higher education as an achievable goal and connects children and their families with University staff, students and campuses through curriculum-related activities.
  4. By 2016-17 the 20 Russell Group universities in England will be spending £184.4 million on bursaries, scholarships and fee waivers aimed at the most disadvantaged, and £36.8 million on outreach activities, including working directly with schools and laying on access schemes and summer schools. In total the English Russell Group universities will be spending £225.9 million of additional fee income through their access agreements in 2016-17, compared to £212.3 million in 2015-16 - an increase of 6.4%. Russell Group universities in England will on average be spending more than 32% of their additional fee income on measures to improve access - more than the 26.5% average across other higher education institutions.
  5. The HESA benchmarks are fundamentally flawed because they fail to provide a full picture of the student body actually qualified to enter many courses. They 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. By their nature these benchmarks are a “moving target” because if institutions with very different challenges meet their benchmarks then this means the benchmarks for all universities become more challenging - universities could meet them one year and fail the next with exactly the same intake.


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