Don’t let debate stop equality work, OfS warns in remark on interest groups

Highlighting the inequalities faced by black and white working-class students, Chris Millward says inequality must be tackled on every “frontier”

Measures to improve universities for disadvantaged students “have long been debated” by different interest groups, but this must not hamper progress on inclusivity, the university regulator for equality in England has warned. 

Chris Millward, the director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, highlighted new figures that show that black students and white working-class students underperform at university.

Higher education providers (HEPs) should eliminate inequalities “whoever they concern and wherever they are found“, he wrote, adding: “Otherwise, the belief in equality of opportunity – and education as the way to achieve this – will diminish.”

Quoting letters between President Abraham Lincoln and mill workers in Lancashire protesting in support of the emancipation of American slaves, Mr Millward called on the sector to display the “same unity and common purpose” in tackling “all of the equality frontiers”. 

Data shows that the participation rate for young black students in higher education has increased by 15 percentage points since 2010 to 59% – but the OfS noted that the 18-percentage-point gap between white and black students achieving a first or a 2:1 subsequently leads to large racial disparities at the postgraduate and doctoral level.

The OfS also cited its concerns about the opportunities afforded to white pupils in receipt of free school meals: just 16 per cent of these students access higher education. These students – as well as white working-class students living in ex-industrial towns, parts of cities across the north and midlands and in coastal towns – account for 92% of the lowest-performing quintile of students ranked by socio-economic measures and higher education participation rates. 

Measures to improve equality such as these have long been debated because of the interests of different groups and their implications for liberty and justice
– Chris Millward, Office for Students

President Lincoln blockaded Confederate state cotton exports in his attempt to undermine slave owners – but the resulting embargo crippled Lancashire mill workers, who relied on the steady transatlantic flow of cotton for employment. A statue of Lincoln stands in Brazennose Street, Manchester, in commemoration of this support. Millward cited this example of commonality “[i]f [univerisites] need further inspiration”. 

“Measures to improve equality such as these have long been debated because of the interests of different groups and their implications for liberty and justice,” Millward wrote in an annual commentary on access and participation. 

“A diverse and world-leading higher education sector must, though, be able to tackle all of the equality frontiers it identifies, whoever they concern and wherever they are found, and to demonstrate progress by reducing the gaps between different groups.”

Four months ago, Prof Matthew Goodwin told MPs, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, told MPs that public debates about equality in recent years had become “much more consumed with other groups” and disadvantaged white families had not been afforded the same attention.

The OfS last year announced an £8m fund for projects to tackle racial disparity among postgraduate research students. The UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) published a report last year highlighting the under-representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students in the world of postgraduate research – adding it would take 52 years to become equal based on current trends. 

The latest access and participation figures

Millward’s comments coincide with the publication of new reports and a data dashboard

Black students are less likely than white students to gain a first or upper second-class degree, figures from 96 of the 97 universities and colleges analysed in the OfS report show. The overall gap in attainment has closed from 24.7 percentage points in 2015/16 to 18.3 percentage points in 2019/20.

The gap in participation at higher tariff universities between students from the least and most advantaged neighbourhoods has narrowed imperceptibly, from 19.5 percentage points in 2018/19 to 19.2 in 2019/20. 

The overall participation gap has reduced from 32.9 percentage points in 2010/11 to 28.9 in 2019/20. The gap between the non-continuation rates of the most and least represented groups have barely improved, dropping from 4.7 percentage points to 4.5 in the same time period. 

The OfS also released an independent review of its plan for access and participation, which suggested many staff in universities think “the tone taken by the OfS did not facilitate a collaborative and open approach”. In response, the regulator said effective regulation “must be founded on open dialogue”, but acknowledged this does “entail mutual respect”. A review of its communications is underway, it added. 

The majority surveyed also felt the OfS had imposed unachievable targets, which had led some providers to pursue “quick fixes”. The review suggested staff favour replacing POLAR4 datasets, which group students based on the relative deprivation of their postcode area, with more nuanced measurements, like free school meals (FSM) data. 


Read more: Poor white people living on the coast or in former industrial towns among the least likely to enter HE

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