Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Offa Lets Russell Group off Fair Access Hook': News

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Offa Lets Russell Group off Fair Access Hook': News

Article excerpt

Watchdog 'is not putting enough pressure' on elite institutions to widen participation. Jack Grove writes.

The Office for Fair Access is not doing enough to push universities to admit more students from poor families or censuring potentially misleading statements about the support available to students, a study claims.

Jonathan Hughes, a lecturer at The Open University, and Marion Bowl, a tutor in the University of Birmingham's School of Education, say their analysis of university access agreements shows that the sector's watchdog is "permissive in its approach" by not challenging institutions on unambitious targets or unclear information provided to students.

The report, Official Discourses of 'Fair Access': What Do Institutional Statements Tell Us about University Stratification, Differentiation and Market Positioning?, highlights the example of two unnamed research- intensive universities that believe they "should be viewed separately" from the rest of the sector and compared with peers in the Russell Group rather than the sector-wide average. Offa appeared to acquiesce in this belief, the paper says.

"Both downplay their poor performance in widening participation relative to other institutions in their region, while still asserting their commitment to fair access," Dr Hughes says in the report.

"It seems that the most selective universities do not feel under pressure from Offa to take the 'determined action' called for in 2011" by Vince Cable, the business secretary, and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, on improving access.

"Rather they continue to differentiate themselves on the basis of their elite status and to resist comparisons with other universities," the paper argues. It was scheduled to be presented at the British Sociological Association's annual conference, held in London between 3 and 5 April, for which Times Higher Education is media partner.

'Marketing tools'

The study - which as well as sector access agreements also reviews public documents produced by eight universities in one English region - criticises Offa's apparent unwillingness to take universities to task over the information provided to low-income students about potential financial support.

Several institutions "omit reference to possible rationing of scholarships", while "eligibility and likelihood of success are not distinguished clearly to enable applicants to assess their prospects of financial support".

"Instead, universities . …

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