The Office for Students (OfS) must review its approach to access and participation to ensure disadvantaged white pupils are “equally supported” in post-18 education as other in-need groups, an influential group of MPs has said.
The education select committee chaired by Robert Halfon today published ‘The forgotten: how white working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it’, after a 14-month inquiry.
The report focuses primarily on pre-18 education – but reserves its concluding chapter for higher education, which calls on the university regulator in England to submit to questioning from MPs in summer 2022 about improving access for white working-class students.
“The current access and participation system is not addressing the needs of poor White communities,” the report states. The OfS must reexamine “how it holds providers to account for ensuring all low-participation groups are equally supported into higher education”, it continues – adding that it must set targets to “ensure that White working-class students’ participation in HE is a key priority for all universities”.
The OfS must then agree to “to a report to Parliament in a year’s time to review progress against this measure and their targets”, the select committee report says. As part of this recalibration, the committee report says the OfS – tasked with distributing hundreds of millions of pounds of access and participation funding – should reconsider “how it classifies ‘under-represented groups’”.
Quoting statistics published by the OfS, the report says the proportion of white British school leavers that were eligible for free school meals (FSM) and gained a place in HE in 2018-19 was just 16%, the lowest of any demographic. FSM-eligible Chinese pupils had a participation rate of 72.8%, and FSM-eligible pupils from a Black Caribbean background had a participation rate of 31.8%.
Recent OfS analysis suggests that 92% of the group least likely to enter higher education are white students who have been eligible for FSM or in low participation neighbourhoods across the country. These are mostly in towns and parts of cities across the north, Midlands and coastal regions.
As the committee’s report acknowledges, our guidance to universities and colleges identifies that white students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are particularly under-represented in higher education. We will ensure that this is reflected in the measures we use within our regulation during the coming years
– Chris Millward, Office for Students
The panel of MPs said “at least some” access and participation funding provided by the OfS should be “redirected to where it can be more effective”. The panels want a portion of these multi-million sums spent “through school-based initiatives ‘upstream’ in pupils’ journeys or towards increasing take-up of apprenticeships and particularly degree apprenticeships”. In 2020/21, the OfS allocated £316 million for universities to “support student access and success for particular student groups”, down from £332m the previous year. It also spent £1.5m on the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education, which creates an evidence base for university widening participation programmes, and £9m on Challenge Competitions, which fund regional partnerships that often relate to social mobility and access. In 2019, the regulator estimated universities in England spent approximately £800m on improving access and outreach.
The report also calls for a new direction at the top, at the Department for Education (DfE) itself. MPs concluded there was little evidence to suggest the £108m spent on Opportunity Areas by the DfE had progressed any “tangible benefits”, despite repeated assurances from the minister for universities, Michelle Donelan, that an additional £18 million on the programme would bring advantages.
Elsewhere, the report criticises the use of the phrase ‘white privilege’, which “may be alienating to disadvantaged White communities, and it may have contributed towards a systemic neglect of White people facing hardship who also need specific support”. In particular, the committee report shares concerns this language may lead to the discrimination of white, working-class students, perceived to have benefited from some form of privilege.
A 2019 report by the National Education Opportunities Network (Neon) argued poor white students were overlooked by majority of universities. Its analysis of admissions figures suggested fewer than half of England’s universities count more than five per cent of the demographic in their intakes.
Earlier this year, Chris Millward, the out-going director for fair access and participation at the OfS, highlighted 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.”
Responding today to the committee report, Millward said MPs were “right to identify white students who are eligible for Free School Meals among the lowest participation groups in higher education”.
“Through their access and participation plans, universities and colleges have made ambitious commitments to improve access for students in these places, and we will be holding them to account for these plans during the coming years. As the committee’s report acknowledges, our guidance to universities and colleges identifies that white students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are particularly under-represented in higher education. We will ensure that this is reflected in the measures we use within our regulation during the coming years.”