On Fair Access to Competitive Universities and Grammar Schools


This post examines recent policy and data on fair access to higher education for gifted disadvantaged students in England.

Part Two will look at fair access to selective secondary education, comparing and contrasting fair access policy in the two sectors.

It will show how fair access to grammar schools might be improved, in response to a challenge issued by the Next Left Blog – a Fabian Society publication – to offer solutions to ‘the challenges of educational inequality’.

Recent developments in fair access to higher education (HE) arise from the UK Government’s Response to the Browne Review of Higher Education and Student Finance.

We will not examine here the detail of the student finance package, as set out in the Review and revised in the Response, but we will look closely at progress to date on the Higher Education Scholarship Fund, now known as the National Scholarship Programme (NSP).

One key issue is the relationship between the NSP and support for disadvantaged students in schools and post-16 institutions. This critical issue was examined in a previous post – my response to the November 2010 Bridge Group seminar on securing social mobility through fair access to HE and the professions.

What is Fair Access to Higher Education?

We began to explore how this term is used in the HE sector in an earlier post on the relationship between fair access and social mobility.

For further guidance, who better to consult than the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), the independent public body that exists to promote fair access?

OFFA defines fair access as:

removing the barriers to higher education, particularly financial barriers, that students from lower income and other under-represented backgrounds face’.

Policy makers often assume that fair access is exclusively about securing stronger representation for such students at ‘competitive’ universities, and that it is a subset of ‘widening participation’ activity, which is concerned with the broader issue of entry to higher education per se.

I shall use the phrase ‘competitive universities’ as a catch-all to encompass several related terms including ‘elite’, ‘Russell Group’, ‘academically selective’, ‘leading’ and ‘top’ universities.

There is not space here to explain the fine distinctions between these broadly similar subsets of the wider HE sector but, in broad terms, we are interested in those universities with relatively more demanding entry requirements, including those most likely to charge fees in excess of £6,000 per year under the new arrangements.

While the OFFA definition of fair access is deliberately broad, enabling it to have a remit across the entire HE sector, this post is largely concerned with the operation of fair access at competitive universities, simply because gifted disadvantaged young people should be aiming higher than entry to any institution, given that some 45% of all young people now enter HE.

The population we are concerned with would typically expect to enter HE – at least they would if we assume that they will not be dissuaded by the new student finance package – but they are heavily under-represented in most of the competitive universities.

The task is to improve their attainment, strengthen their aspirations and provide the necessary information, advice and guidance to enable them to compete on a level playing field when applying to such a university.

I note in passing that by no means all ‘competitive’ courses are offered by competitive universities and, conversely, that ‘competitive’ embraces many more institutions than Oxford and Cambridge, despite Michael Gove’s tendency to define the issue solely in terms of entry to those Hallowed Halls.

And, for the sake of completeness, I should add that I am using eligibility for free school meals as the measure of disadvantage, not least because it has now been adopted for the Pupil Premium and so may also determine eligibility for the NSP.

OFFA’s definition of fair access is helpfully amplified in its three strategic aims:

  • to support and encourage improvements in participation rates in higher education from low income and other under-represented groups;
  • to reduce as far as practicable the barriers to higher education for students from low income and other under-represented groups by ensuring that institutions continue to invest in bursaries and outreach;
  • to support and encourage equality of opportunity through the provision of clear and accessible financial information for students, their parents/carers and their advisers.

These aims are secured through an Access Agreement which a university must conclude with OFFA.

All three remain broadly relevant in the new policy environment, though they may require some adjustment to reflect new draft guidance to OFFA from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which outlines the implications for OFFA’s work of the Government’s response to Browne. We will return to that later.


What Browne recommended as additional support for fair access

The Browne Review recommended the merger of several different central funding streams supporting disadvantaged students to enter and remain in HE, noting that the 2010-11 allocations include:

  • £60 million for widening access for full-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds

  • £70 million for widening access for part-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds

  • £10 million for widening access and improving provision for disabled students

  • £170 million for Teaching Enhancement and Success improving retention of full-time students

  • £50 million for Teaching Enhancement and Success improving retention of part-time students

There is a risk of double-counting here but these sums do not seem to include the funding for Aimhigher – a national programme supporting widening participation to the value of some £78 million in 2010-11 – which the Government recently announced it was terminating in July 2011.

If so, this amounts to a total annual investment of some £438 million in widening participation, fair access and retention.

And it is not clear from the Browne Review how much overlap there is between these allocations handled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the £400 million or so (in FY 2009-10) that Browne says universities have spent on bursaries and the like:

‘Since the 2006 changes, institutions have been required to promote access as a condition of charging higher fees. They spent almost £400m in 2009-10 on meeting this commitment. Most of the money goes on providing bursaries to students receiving the full maintenance grant from Government. Yet the latest evidence from OFFA – the body responsible for promoting fair access since the 2006 changes – states that bursaries have been ineffective in influencing the application decisions made by students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

Assuming the worst case scenario that there is zero overlap, this increases the total annual spend – by Government and HE combined – to well over £800 million. Let us be generous and assume that current expenditure is of the order of half a billion pounds annually.

Browne proposed merging Government support into a single ‘Access and Success Fund’ (which it did not explicitly quantify) to help ensure that resources are more:

‘tightly focused on students from low participation neighbourhoods…. This funding currently rewards institutions for retaining students regardless of their background. The Access and Success fund will change this – it will only be available to support institutions in recruiting and retaining those students who need additional support due to the effects of a disadvantaged background.’

Browne also proposed changes to the accountability system, recommending the merger of OFFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England into a single HE Council and the integration of Access Agreements and Widening Participation Strategic Assessments into a single document. (Since 2006, in addition to the Access Agreement concluded with OFFA, universities must also produce a WPSA consistent with a HEFCE framework to receive funding for widening participation.)


The Government’s Alternative Approach: A National Scholarships Programme

Browne envisaged that, when universities charged a fee of more than £6,000 a year, they would pay a levy to cover the additional costs to Government of providing the necessary upfront finance to students. There would be no maximum cap on fees.

This approach was adapted in the Government’s response to Browne, which proposed a maximum annual fee of £9,000, arguing that this removed the need for a levy.

Instead, any university charging more than £6,000 would be required to take part in a National Scholarships Programme, first announced by the Deputy Prime Minister a month earlier.

The NSP will not be introduced until Autumn 2012. It will be worth £150 million by 2014-15. As far as I can establish, we do not yet know how much will be available in the two preceding financial years (although several commentaries wrongly assume that £150m will be available from the outset).

We do know already that there is no transitional funding between April 2011 and Autumn 2012.

The initial Government response to Browne made clear that it aimed to secure matched contributions from universities to its own investment in the NSP, but stopped short of imposing a levy.

It continued:

‘Our current preference is for universities to offer scholarships to targeted students – including the principal beneficiaries of the pupil premium – that would mean at least their first year [of higher education] is free. Other attractive ideas include expanding the model of a foundation year for young people with high potential but lower qualifications.’

These arrangements would be secured through new access agreements policed by OFFA, which would remain separate from HEFCE. It would agree with universities:

a programme of defined progress each year towards their access benchmarks as calculated by the Higher Education Funding Council. If they are not making adequate progress towards these benchmarks, a mechanism will be established to allow OFFA to redirect a proportion of the income from contributions over £6,000 to specified access activities’.

These proposals were clarified in a December 2010 Press Notice which announced a steering group to develop the NSP.

It revealed that Ministers had asked the steering group to consider two specific options:

  • ‘A first free year for disadvantaged students funded by their university with the NSP then funding the students’ final year, meaning that those who stay the course are rewarded’ (presumably this secures the necessary matched funding from the university).
  • ‘A foundation or professional scholarship year to attract young talented people into the professions like law, medicine, finance and architecture who might have been badly advised on which A-Levels to study, with fees waived for a foundation year to get them the qualifications they need.’

The press notice says that both these proposals could potentially help support 18,000 students’ (though the mathematics underpinning this calculation is not explained.)

Meanwhile, OFFA received its new draft guidance which includes several interesting details:

  • All universities’ access agreements will continue to be published.
  • While agreements will apply at the institutional level, universities are free to target their access support more tightly, eg on courses leading to professional careers.
  • There will be no minimum requirement for the content of access agreements, though a reserve power exists in the legislation to create one.
  • OFFA will ‘want to ensure that institutions do not require students to take out higher loans, which the institution then recycles into poorly targeted bursary schemes which your own evidence has shown are not an effective mechanism for widening participation’.
  • However, OFFA should encourage the use of financial waivers – such as the free year of study being examined by the HE scholarships steering group.
  • Although institutions may wish to continue to offer targeted bursaries, this is no longer a universal requirement.
  • Progress measures should be agreed on an institution-by-institution basis.
  • OFFA’s main sanction is not to agree an institution’s access agreement, which would prevent a university from charging more than £6,000 in annual fees.
  • OFFA can also impose a fine of up to £500,000 and secure restitution on behalf of affected students.

Reaction to the NSP: Million+

Although the December proposals make a welcome (if belated) connection between the Pupil Premium and the NSP, initial responses have suggested that they are not well thought through and that the steering group would be well-advised to reconsider. Responses have focused primarily on the proposal for free tuition rather than the foundation year concept.

The think-tank Million+ published a letter to the Minister for Universities describing the proposals as ‘unworkable and unfair’.

Whereas many commentators have wrongly assumed that the Government is committed to contributing £150m per year to the NSP from 2012-13, Million+ makes the opposite – and presumably equally incorrect – assumption that a total of only £150m is available across the three financial years to 2014-15, so only £50 million a year.

Million+ notes the Government’s stated intention that a free first year of university tuition should be offered to ‘the principal beneficiaries of the Pupil Premium’ – in other words all those students in the relevant age group who are eligible for free school meals and who progress to higher education.

Published figures show that there were 10,670 learners meeting these criteria in 2006/07, whereas a funding pot of £50 million annually would allow the Government to fund just:

  • 8,333 students per year if fees are set at £6,000
  • 6,944 students per year if fees are set at £7,200 or
  • 5,555 students per year if fees are set at £9,000

Million+ also points out that, by placing an expectation on universities to match fund, by providing a further year’s free tuition, the Government will create a perverse incentive, punishing financially those universities that contribute most to social mobility by taking in relatively larger numbers of disadvantaged students.

These universities would then be more likely to have to increase their fees unless – like Oxford and Cambridge for example – they were wealthy enough to be able to meet the cost from their endowments.

The letter provides figures to exemplify the argument:

  • With a £9000 pa fee, a university admitting 10 FSM-eligible students would need to spend £90,000 per annum on the NSS to provide one year’s free tuition;
  • However, a university admitting 100 FSM-eligible students would be required to spend £900,000 per annum;
  • And a university with 300 FSM-eligible students would be required to spend £2.7million per annum;
  • While a university with 420 FSM-eligible students (the highest number admitted by any HEI in 2006/7) would be required to spend £3.78 million.

An arrangement of this kind that loaded the financial dice against the newer and relatively less competitive universities would be an own goal because – while it might begin to redistribute FSM-eligible students towards competitive universities – it would be highly unlikely to increase the overall proportion of FSM-eligible students in higher education.

Reaction to the NSP: The Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust publication ‘Responding to the new landscape for university access’ is also critical of the NSP proposals.

It advances similar arguments to Million+ based on a statistical analysis of the distribution of FSM-eligible students in higher education. It agrees this will have relatively less effect on the country’s most prestigious universities (typically those with the fewest FSM-eligible students) especially those in non-urban settings and will penalise financially those universities with largest numbers of FSM-eligible entrants.

The Trust acknowledges its own support for a ‘first year for free’ arrangement (which it included in its submission to the Browne Review) but argues for a pilot to examine the impact on students’ decisions about which universities to attend.

It also recommends that NSP funding should not be used exclusively for this purpose but should also fund other activity including ‘proven outreach schemes to raise aspirations and the drive to improve access to the most selective universities…’

This can be taken to refer, inter alia, to the Sutton Trust’s own Summer School Programme.

The Trust makes several other recommendations:

  • Given that Aimhigher funding is disappearing, OFFA’s role in securing effective university outreach through access agreements becomes even more important. In this environment, OFFA needs the powers and political support to respond assertively to universities that fail to achieve their access targets.

  • To achieve this, OFFA needs more power and independence. It should have a board including external members and should not be subsumed within HEFCE as recommended in the Browne Review.

  • Access agreements should include ‘an explicit commitment to proven outreach work such as summer schools and mentoring schemes – perhaps 25% of extra fee income or more, depending on the extent of the under-representation of certain groups. At the very least, it should be a significant proportion of fee income spent on access work as a whole’.

  • Access agreements must commit universities to the dual responsibilities of widening participation generally and ensuring fair access into their own institution. The balance between these two imperatives will depend on the nature of the institution.


What next?

There is clearly a lot of work still to do on the NSP and on the wider arrangements supporting fair access.

Key aspects of the bigger picture remain to be clarified, including how much funding (if any) will be available to universities through HEFCE allocations in 2011-12 and subsequent years to complement NSP support.

The HEFCE funding letter just released shows that, while fair access is a high priority, the global sum available will diminish significantly.

It remains to be seen whether the real terms investment in fair access will decline compared with the current investment. If it does, the task of improving the representation of disadvantaged students in competitive universities will be correspondingly harder.

The expected HE White Paper will need to fill the remaining gaps in our knowledge and understanding. It has not been helpful that this complex jigsaw is seemingly being built up piece by piece, rather than emerging holistically from a comprehensive overarching vision and overarching objectives.

Such an approach creates a strong risk that overall coherence will be lacking: policies will not be properly ‘joined up’, as the Government seeks to build connections between the different elements and ‘retro-fit’ them together.

The relationship with the Pupil Premium stands out in this respect. The Premium itself is facing criticism as probably too blunt an instrument to support social mobility.

It is not yet apparent how a sum – initially set at just £430 a year – and which schools are free to deploy as they wish at a time when all budgets are under pressure, will be combined effectively with the NSP to create coherent long-term support for FSM-eligible pupils to secure places at competitive universities.

The demise of the Educational Maintenance Allowance for 16-19 year-olds adds a further strand of uncertainty. But, somewhat belatedly, the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) has acknowledged that the discretionary learner support intended to replace the EMA needs to be factored into the equation.

Its recently published 16-19 Funding Statement says:

‘A consultation in 2011 on the [16-19] funding formula will look at how the formula can better support the Coalition Government’s aims of transparency and fairness, and, in particular, how targeted support for young people can be aligned with the Pupil Premium and the National Scholarships Programme in Higher Education. The review of the funding formula will also take account of the recommendations from Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational qualifications.’

This is very much to be welcomed, though it would have been better to have begun to plan with the overall objective of providing coherent support for FSM-eligible students across the three sectors of school, post-16 and HE, rather than examining only now how 16-19 support will fit with the other two elements.

We do not yet know the exact size of the 16-19 Discretionary Support Fund and whether it will be sufficient to continue Pupil Premium support at the same level for all FSM-eligible students once they become 16. We expect a budget of some £70m per year and there is some reason to doubt that this will be sufficient, particularly as the size of the Pupil Premium increases towards £1,500 per pupil per year by 2014-15.


Coda: Interpreting the data on fair access to competitive universities

To complete this analysis, I thought it would be salutory to review different ‘takes’ on recently published data on fair access. Because of the time lags involved in matching different datasets, the latest year for which we have data is academic year 2007/08.


The Browne Review

The official view was encapsulated in the Browne Review, which faithfully reported the evidence submitted to it by the Chairman of OFFA:

‘Sir Martin Harris’s recent report on fair access presented data to show that despite the substantial increases in participation among the least advantaged 40% of young people across higher education overall compared to the mid-1990s, the participation rate among the same group of young people at the top third of selective universities has remained almost flat over the same period. After controlling for differences in attainment at secondary school, there is still a difference in the participation rate of these students on the most selective courses.’


The Sutton Trust

This perspective has been further developed in the Sutton Trust report referenced above.

It first examines the relative achievement of FSM-eligible pupils and pupils educated in independent fee-paying schools, showing that fee-paying pupils are 3.5 times more likely than FSM pupils to attain five GCSEs with grades A*-C including English and maths.

By age 18, they are over 22 times more likely to enter a highly selective university and 55 times more likely to enter Oxford or Cambridge.

The Trust also considers progress on fair access by FSM-eligible students to the UK’s ’30 most academically selective universities’ over the three latest academic years for which figures are available: 2005/06, 2006/07, and 2007/08.

During this period, some 5.5% of students entering English universities were FSM-eligible – equivalent to about 10,000 students a year – compared with 81.5% of other state school pupils and 13% of independent school pupils.

But only 2% of the intake to the 25 most academically selective universities (about 1,300 pupils a year) were FSM-eligible, compared with 72.2% of other state school pupils and 25.8% from independent schools.

At the most selective universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, fewer than 1% ofstudents were FSM-eligible, while almost 50% were from fee-paying schools.

On the other hand, FSM-eligible pupils comprise almost 25% of students at the least selective universities. The Trust acknowledges that A level attainment is the key driver of these differences, but also notes that FSM-eligible numbers are typically higher at all universities based in inner-city areas.


The Labour Opposition

Labour has made some sort of attempt to defend its record on fair access in this newspaper article which uses the same statistics for the same three years.

It says that, between 2005 and 2007, the total number of FSM-eligible pupils attending university increased by 18% while the comparable increase among those not eligible for FSM was 9%.

And that the proportion of FSM-eligible students at the 20 Russell Group universities increased 10% from 975 to 1,075 while the comparable increase for those not eligible was 4.5%, increasing from 32,535 to 34,000.

A Labour MP is quoted:

‘The Tories’ highly selective use of statistics does not accurately reflect the improvements Labour made, both in increasing opportunities for the poorest children and narrowing the achievement gap.’

Given the overall imbalance between FSM and non-FSM, this is – to be honest – mere clutching at straws. An increase of just 100 pupils across 20 universities over three years is hardly a success story, especially given an annual investment of at least half a billion pounds.

Gifted Phoenix

I too have examined these statistics, but from a slightly different perspective.

This table shows changes in the raw numbers and percentages of FSM-eligible entrants to the 38 most competitive universities in England over the same three-year period.

Key points to emerge are:

  • In 2005/06, the universities with the worst records on fair access were, in order of shame: Newcastle, Warwick, Durham, Loughborough, Oxford, Nottingham, Sheffield, Bristol, Bath, Cambridge and York. In all 11, the percentage of FSM-eligible entrants was under 2%.
  • By 2007/08, the comparable list in order of shame was: Bath, Cambridge, Exeter, Oxford, York, Southampton, Bristol, Newcastle, Warwick. Two fewer universities, but seven of those with under 2% representation in 2005/06 were still under 2% two years later.
  • Over this period, the percentage of FSM-eligible students actually declined at Bath, Bristol, Cambridge, Exeter, Oxford, Southampton and York universities.
  • As we know from Michael Gove, in 2005/06 Oxford took 20 FSM-eligible students and Cambridge 25 (all figures are rounded to the nearest 5) giving 45 in all at Oxbridge; by 2007/08, Cambridge had fallen to 20 while Oxford remained at 20, so the total number at Oxbridge had fallen to just 40.
  • However, in percentage terms, in 2007/08, Bath was a worse performer than Oxford and Cambridge and Exeter were worse performers than Oxford. They must be thankful that Oxbridge is taking the rap!
  • Three of the universities in the table – Bradford, City, Queen Mary – recruit between 20 and 30 percent of their intake from FSM-eligible pupils.
  • All of the London universities – including the elite institutions like Imperial, Kings and UCL – achieve a FSM-eligible intake of 5% or more, more than double the proportion recruited at the more problematic institutions.
  • Over the period, there was a 0.7% increase in the average FSM-eligible intake amongst these universities, representing a real increase of 620 students.
  • In 2005/06, 26 of the 38 universities in the table were recruiting below the average of 4.53% eligible for free school meals; by 2007/08 this had increased to 27 recruiting below the average of 5.24%. (so the average intake had improved by just over 0.7%.)

Final thoughts

Overall, this record is not inspiring – suggesting that Browne was right to conclude that the previous regime of bursaries, HEFCE benchmarks and OFFA access agreements was hardly a resounding success.

But it is also hard to see how the new plans will achieve a step change in the short term, or over the lifetime of this Government.

The best chance of achieving success through an education-based intervention is to create a co-ordinated holistic support programme for selected FSM-eligible students from at least Year 9 to HE entry, as suggested in my earlier post.

By fully participating in a collaborative programme of this kind, the worst offending universities could significantly increase the proportion of FSM-eligible students they admit, and do so far more efficiently than by pursuing their own individual outreach programmes with no proper integration with other universities and with the support provided by schools and post-16 institutions.

By insisting on institutions in all three sectors operating autonomously, we are collectively putting the ideology of institutional autonomy ahead of the drive for greater social mobility, even though the Government says that improving social mobility is its top policy priority.

Given the relatively small number of students affected, a co-ordinated centralised programme, flexible enough to meet the different needs of the participants, offers the best prospect of success. By refusing to recognise this we are at risk of compromising the life chances of many gifted disadvantaged learners, for the universities that have become bastions of unfair access will not change of their own volition.


January 2011

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