22% rise in students from underrepresented communities at high-tariff universities, says OfS

“Improvements in access are only one part of the picture,” warned the OfS, as it published the final evaluation of its £7.5m ‘Addressing barriers to student success’ programme

Year-on-year growth in the number of students from underrepresented communities at top universities is at its highest level for at least a decade, says the Office for Students (OfS).

After analysing recent data from UCAS, the education body is reporting a 22% increase in students from disadvantaged backgrounds at high-tariff universities, an extra 1,000 students compared to 2019.

While welcoming the figures, Chris Millward, OfS director for fair access and participation, warned that “improvements in access are only one part of the picture – students from disadvantaged backgrounds must also be supported to thrive academically and progress successfully beyond higher education”.

To that end, the OfS today (November 3) published the final evaluation of its ‘Addressing barriers to student success’ programme, a £7.5m initiative that funded 17 projects from March 2017 to October 2019.

Government must consider a new national strategy to address inequality across the education system – Dr Hollie Chandler, Russell Group

Chiefly focused on boosting the educational and employment outcomes of BAME students, together with those from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds, examples of projects undertaken include:

  • Aston University Part of a consortium of universities bidding to improve graduate level employment rates for underrepresented students by scaling up employability interventions
  • University of Exeter Sought to support BTEC students by improving pre-arrival information to ease the transition, and developed an app to provide more targeted support to first years
  • New College Durham Established HE academic support tutors to improve study skills, boost engagement with course content, and raise students’ confidence and resilience

Regional disparity is another key issue in addressing equitable access to higher education, with government data revealing that only 40% of young people go into higher education in the North East of England, compared to 55% in London.

Meanwhile, OfS analysis of participation by parliamentary constituency found that almost all of the communities with the lowest levels of access to HE are either industrial towns and cities in the North and Midlands, or coastal towns.

“We are meeting this week with universities and colleges across the country so that we can agree how their access and participation work should develop into the future,” added Millward, as he called on institutions to tackle issues around hardship and access to learning, and ensure that campuses are diverse and welcoming places.

“We want to build on the improvements to access this year, whilst tackling the new issues arising from the pandemic. There are, for example, increased opportunities for universities and further education colleges to work together to meet the high levels of demand we are seeing from people who want to study locally, including adults who want to re-train. But we need also to ensure that universities are tackling the financial and practical barriers to learning, so that all students have a fair chance to succeed.”

In related news: Access all areas? An overview of life for disabled students in HE

Dr Hollie Chandler, head of policy (higher education) at the Russell Group, said she was “pleased” by the marked increase in students from disadvantaged backgrounds at high-tariff universities.

Praising Russell Group members’ efforts to support disadvantaged students, particularly those taking up their places during the pandemic, she added:

“To build on the progress made this year, government must consider a new national strategy to join up work by universities, schools, colleges, local authorities and others to address inequality across the education system.”

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