Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Offa Pushes Sector to Do More to Widen Access

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Offa Pushes Sector to Do More to Widen Access

Article excerpt

Watchdog tells two-thirds of institutions to boost support for poorer students. Chris Havergal writes

More than two-thirds of UK higher education institutions have been pushed to go further and faster on access for poorer students as "stretching" targets are introduced across the sector.

Statistics from the Office for Fair Access reveal that, of the 121 higher education institutions whose access agreements were approved on 16 July, 83 had been told that their initial submissions were not ambitious enough.

Last year, fewer than one in four HEIs - 28 of 123 - had to enter into negotiations with Offa before their agreements were signed off.

Les Ebdon, the director of fair access to higher education, told Times Higher Education that it had been a "tough" round of negotiations that had left some university leaders "bruised".

This year was the first since 2011 that Offa had asked institutions to significantly review their targets, with Professor Ebdon arguing that the removal of undergraduate number caps meant that there was no excuse for lack of ambition among universities, particularly highly selective ones.

For the first time, the agreements, which cover the 2016-17 academic year, require all institutions to set targets relating to admissions, alongside Offa's long-standing focus on applications.

But Professor Ebdon praised universities for their response to Offa's challenge. Following the negotiations, 78 agreed to set more ambitious targets and 23 increased their proposed level of spending, by a total of £10.7 million.

With access agreements having also been approved for 62 further education colleges that offer higher education courses, Offa said that institutions were now on course to hit its target of doubling the entry rate of students from poorer areas by 2019-20.

"There is no question whatsoever that these were real and challenging negotiations and that we are determined to deliver on the strategy which we have outlined, and that means we are going to need significant contributions from across the sector but particularly from highly selective institutions," Professor Ebdon said.

"I believe that the abolition of the student number cap gives us the opportunity to really move forward with that agenda but I wouldn't want to leave anyone in any doubt that the challenge [from Offa] has been very real. …

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