Briefing - Helping under-represented students access and succeed at university

07 April 2022

A long-term approach to raising standards, improved access to evidence, and giving universities flexibility to use a range of approaches is crucial to truly improve access to higher education.

In a briefing paper, published today (7 April) as the Office for Students (OfS) holds an event looking at how universities can form meaningful partnerships with schools to raise attainment and improve access to university, the Russell Group has set out its priorities for improving access and helping students to succeed at university.

It comes ahead of the OfS publishing guidance on variations to the access and participation plans (APP), which universities publish to set out how they will give students of all backgrounds the opportunity to succeed in higher education.

The APP variations process provides an opportunity for the OfS to consider how it identifies effective ways of improving access and participation and how it holds universities accountable for their work in doing so.

In the paper, which can be downloaded below, the Russell Group make a series of recommendations.

Taking a long-term strategic approach – Access to university is improving, with the ratio between the most and least under-represented students declining steadily over the last eight years. However, improving access and the OfS’ renewed focus on raising attainment in school are long-term processes. Setting targets that acknowledge this will allow universities to be more ambitious and work more effectively with the school sector.  

Accessing more effective evidence – POLAR data is currently used to monitor access however it has limitations. For example, according to POLAR only 1.3% of neighbourhoods in London are classified as amongst the least represented at university despite London having a greater proportion of income-deprived children than anywhere else in the country. We would encourage OfS to consider an alternative, pupil-level measures when setting APPs, including metrics like free school meal eligibility, and in the longer-term consider creating a new household income metric. The renewed focus on collaboration to build evidence of what does and doesn’t work is also welcomed

Better recognition of different approaches – Russell Group universities already do a wide range of work with schools to raise attainment. This includes hands on work like opening specialist maths schools, sponsoring academy schools, setting up academy trusts, or larger scale projects such as producing free high-quality resources for schools, teacher training programmes or websites like Advancing Access or Informed Choices. Giving universities the flexibility to make evidence-based decisions how they improve access has the potential to deliver success on a larger scale, whether that is more students going to university or other options such as degree apprenticeships or technical courses.

Supporting under-represented students to access and succeed in higher education

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