Equality gaps at universities could ‘almost halve’ within five years – OfS

Universities minister Chris Skidmore said the report’s findings were ‘damning for the sector’

Equality gaps at universities could “almost halve” within five years, according to analysis by the Office for Students (OfS).

The higher education regulator set out targets for English universities in late 2018. The watchdog challenged providers to achieve equality of opportunity by tackling gaps in entry rates, dropout rates and degree outcomes between different groups of students within the next 20 years.

This latest report analyses the resulting “access and participation plans” that were submitted by 171 higher education providers to the OfS.

From September, English universities have promised to invest £552m in closing these gaps, rising to £565m in 2024-25. The access gap at England’s most selective universities – including Oxford, Cambridge and other members of the Russell Group – could almost halve in the next five years and the gap could be eliminated entirely within 20 years, the OfS forecasts.

‘Damning for the sector’

Following the report’s publication, OfS chair Sir Michael Barber told MPs that the chance to go to university has been “something of a postcode lottery”, adding: “What is an assumed rite of passage for many young people across the country is often viewed very differently in rural and coastal communities, the industrial heartlands and military towns.”

Sir Michael drew attention to complex geographical disparities.

“In London, 54% of young people go into higher education, but this falls to 39 per cent in the North East and in the South West it is only 37%. So this is more than a simple North-South divide. In fact, the South West has the lowest participation rate of any region, while our most elite universities tend to recruit far fewer students from the West Midlands,” he explained.

Universities minister Chris Skidmore said the report’s findings were “damning for the sector”.

“We cannot let this talent be wasted,” he added.

The OfS tiger is now roaring, but it remains to be seen if has any teeth – Dr Gurnam Singh

Senior figures within the HE sector have responded to the OfS report.

Piers Wilkinson, NUS disabled students’ officer, said: “NUS, students’ unions and activists have been driving these issues for years – but to be meaningful, these commitments need to take into account the long distance many institutions have to travel to iron out institutional prejudices and the intersecting barriers that students face on campus.”

Mr Wilkinson called for “a nuanced understanding” of the figures, pointing to the “shocking” figures for disabled students. The union said attainment and employment gaps vary greatly for people with different types of impairment and called for greater high-quality provision.

The NUS said the black attainment gap “is a symptom of underlying race inequities that permeate through our institutions and their decision-making processes”. It pointed to a report from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission on racial harassment which concluded British universities were ‘oblivious’ to high levels of racial abuse.

Institutional attitudes

Dr Gurnam Singh, associate professor of equity of attainment at Coventry University, told University Business: “The OfS report offering optimistic forecasts on sector wide reductions in access and attainment disparities is to be welcomed. Historically universities have tended to adopt a deficit approach [tackling the problem and not the cause], but there appears to have been a welcome and marked shift towards concentrating fire on institutional attitudes and failures.

“The cancer of institutional exclusion and attainment disparities has been known for over 10 years and we are still looking at another 20 years before we may see its eradication. This does mean that many thousands of students paying hefty fees will have been disadvantaged. However, the good news is that the OfS tiger is now roaring, but it remains to be seen if has any teeth.”

Read more: ‘We are still a long way from equality’ – OfS

The report’s summary

If universities meet their targets, the OfS predicts that:

  • the gap in dropout rates between students from the most and least represented groups would fall from 4.6 to 2.9 percentage points
  • the gap between the proportion of white and black students who are awarded a 1st or 2:1 degree would drop from 22 to 11.2 percentage points
  • the gap between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled students who are awarded a 1st or 2:1 degree would reach a level close to equality, falling from 2.8 to only 1 percentage point

However, the report also draws attention to ongoing problem areas:

  • Mature students have not been sufficiently prioritised by many universities and colleges despite low and decreasing numbers of such students
  • Many approaches to addressing the needs of some smaller groups of students who are particularly underrepresented – such as care leavers, people estranged from their families, young people from military families, and people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities – are still only in the very early stages of development
  • Some issues that underpin inequality in higher education – like geographical disparities in school attainment – could be tackled much more effectively through a joint effort between universities, colleges, schools, local authorities and third sector organisations

The OfS has put in place a range of measures to hold universities and colleges to account on the commitments they have made:

  • 14 university plans were not approved for the maximum five-year period
  • 90 providers have received enhanced monitoring requirements, which require them to report on specific commitments in their plans
  • 79 providers have received formal communications, which draw attention to particular areas of the plan they will be expected to address in their first annual impact report in 2022
  • To date, no plans have been refused and no specific conditions have been applied

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