Universities asked to explain “disadvantaged” criteria for offers

Universities will be asked to explain how they judge whether someone is “disadvantaged” by the higher education regulator.

The Office for Students is set to launch a consultation next week on new requirements for university ‘access and participation’ plans which ask universities to explain the measures they use to give more offers to poorer students.

John Blake, director of equitable access and participation at the Office of Students, said the higher education sector needs to have a “conversation” about the “huge intersections between different kinds of disadvantage and the right metrics and measures to deal with disadvantages for certain groups”.

He admitted that using the postcode areas where applicants come from to determine how disadvantaged they are, which currently underpins national college access goals, cannot “solely” be used to solve the fair admissions challenge.

“A More Nuanced Way”

“I hope the structure we will be moving forward with in the consultation we plan to launch next week will at least provide some comfort to those who think there is a more nuanced way to consider those in need of support in and through higher education,” he said at a Labor Party conference side event hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

It comes as universities are accused of discriminating against middle-class teenagers.

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service released last week showed that 18-year-olds from wealthier backgrounds were the only group to see a drop in the number of places won this year.

The University of Sussex said on Monday that almost one in five offers it makes are “contextual”, meaning applicants need lower grades to win a place because they faced “challenges that may have had an impact on their education”.

Mr Blake said universities lowering grade requirements for “disadvantaged” students were unfair to wealthier students with higher grades.

He said: “Basically it breaks the deal that ambitious middle-class parents feel they have made with the government – that they pay their taxes, send their children to school and that they somehow expect them to be fairly shaken up in college, including the very selective ones.

He said contextual admissions “is bad because it complicates the admissions system, because it creates real equity issues and…those students who have gone through the school sector and got the grades that thought to give them access, but find themselves losing out to others who may have had lower ratings.

However, he said they are “necessary because in part they aim to correct the shortcomings of the equality that we provide to the younger years”.

Evidence of policies

He also said he “totally rejects” the concept that “there is something inherently good about admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of the quality of the courses they take.”

“I think there comes a time when you talk about students who, for very different reasons, have had very difficult lives and deserve the opportunity to not be able to solve these problems on their own. And if you just throw them in the library and expect them to swim, they’ll give up, and I think that’s both unfortunate for them but also extremely unfair.

Mr. Blake is due to explain the regulator’s new approach to access and participation on Tuesday during a speech at the Social Mobility Foundation.

Since joining the regulator in January, the former teacher has pushed universities to do more to share evidence of policies that have worked to help “ensure that everyone considering higher education receives the best possible support, advice and interventions to achieve their aspirations”.

He also called on universities to focus more on improving the education of children before they apply for higher education.

“It would be much better if we got to a point where we didn’t need to deploy those kinds of tools because we didn’t see those inequalities emerging at 16 and 18,” he said.

Professor Sasha Roseneil, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, told the fringe event that she believed wider participation was ‘intrinsically good’ in itself and that she wanted the proportion of self -called “contextual admissions” increases.