OFFA guidance to universities charging over £6,000

08 March 2011

Commenting on the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) guidance to institutions on access agreements for 2012-13, Russell Group Director General Dr Wendy Piatt said:

“Russell Group universities are committed to broadening access so that every student with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed at a leading university can do so, whatever their background. But it is really important to understand that the most important reason why too few poorer students even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the right grades at school. The most effective way of getting students from low income backgrounds into the best universities is to help them to improve their academic performance and provide better advice and guidance at an early stage. Universities can and do help but we simply cannot solve these problems alone.

“Although A-level and equivalent qualifications are a key source of information about academic ability, Russell Group universities already take a range of factors and information into account to ensure that we can identify the candidates with the most potential to excel on our courses, whatever their social or educational background. But admission to university is and should be based on merit, and any decisions about admissions must also respect the autonomy of institutions and maintain high academic standards.

“Any measurement of universities’ progress in improving access must be undertaken with great care.  We welcome the fact that OFFA will be allowing universities some scope to set their own targets and milestones for access work, noting that ‘there is no single perfect measure of access performance’. The HESA Benchmarks for widening participation should not be used as the main way of assessing progress as they provide unsuitable, insufficient and flawed targets against which universities’ progress can be meaningfully measured. As Lord Browne found, the benchmarks fail to provide a full picture of the student body actually qualified to enter many courses; for example, they take no account of the fact 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.

“The investment of Russell Group institutions into outreach activities benefits the sector as a whole, with many students being inspired to study at other institutions as a result of our widely targeted work with potential candidates of many ages and backgrounds. It is essential that the OFFA approval and monitoring processes fully recognise the challenges of setting targets for achievements in outreach work, where success in terms of changes to attitudes and aspirations can be very difficult to measure.

“Russell Group universities are committed to building on our strong track-record of investing (at least £75 million per year) in access initiatives including school and college partnerships, summer schools and financial aid for the least advantaged students. Sir Martin Harris himself has acknowledged that without the efforts of our universities in outreach programmes to date, we would have seen a decline in the both the absolute and relative participation rates of such students in the most selective institutions. But it’s important to keep in mind that fee income is also urgently needed to maintain the quality of teaching and the student experience, especially given the significant cuts we are experiencing in funding from HEFCE.”

Notes to Editors

  1. In the last 15 years the proportion of A-level students at comprehensive schools achieving 3As or more at A-level has risen from 4.2% to 8.2%, while the proportion at independent schools has risen from 15.1% to 32.3% (source DfE).
  2. The figure of £75m is the total ‘OFFA-countable’ expenditure on access, funded from additional fee income in 2008-09. A wide range of access initiatives undertaken in our universities that are funded from other sources, including donation and endowment income, are not included.

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