John Glen is MP for Salisbury, and a member of the Defence Select Committee
As UCAS admissions start dropping into the mailboxes of university admissions tutors, it is likely that the new policy and sanctions of the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) will be weighing heavily on their minds. OFFA is responsible for ensuring fair access to the UK’s universities for students from socially, economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. Earlier this year, in his guidance letter to the Director of OFFA, the Universities Minister stated that OFFA should “focus on the outcomes of access and not just the inputs and processes” – and OFFA have the ability to void an access agreement or levy fines for universities who don’t meet their access targets.
The threat of sanctions for universities who miss their access targets assumes that it is the fault of the universities that students from deprived backgrounds are not being admitted. The universities are certainly responsible for the outreach work that they do to encourage applications from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible– and in this respect the continued focus of OFFA on “inputs” is important. Universities should be encouraging students from any social or educational background to apply, and the excellent work that outreach and schools liaison officers do should be continued and extended.
However, OFFA’s approach is to focus on the outcomes of admissions – and hold universities responsible for missing their access targets for admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a confused policy, because university admissions tutors have no incentive to discriminate against able applicants. Anyone responsible for university admissions will be seeking only to admit the best students –those who will be capable of benefiting from what their courses have to offer. If universities are doing all they can to encourage able applicants to apply, then it is difficult to see the point of effectively seeking to place the blame on them if they miss their access targets. The reason that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not being admitted to top universities must be that some schools are not developing the abilities of talented students. They are not being encouraged to apply, properly prepared for university entrance processes, or being given the wider skills needed to succeed at degree level. This needs tackling urgently and is being done so by the pupil premium and targeted investments at the level of schools – not just at the point when applications for university are contemplated.
A policy that penalises universities for missing access targets will have the inevitable outcome of forcing universities to lower entrance standards. This is often couched in the comfortable terms of “contextual admissions”, where universities take into account the background of the applicants in making their decisions and giving offers – for example, an applicant who gets three “B”s at A-Level from a low-performing school with behavioural problems may be seen as equivalent to an applicant from a top public school with three “A”s.
However, forcing admissions tutors to lower their admissions standards in this way is misguided. First, these forced “contextual” standards second-guess the academic and professional judgement of admissions tutors. Second, “contextual” standards are essentially guesswork – they say in effect that the applicant would have been an excellent candidate had they been from a better educational background. This approach of wondering what “might have been” is clearly contrary to admission on merit. Third, this policy ignores that good independent schools are improving access – some applicants from top independent schools may well be from deprived social or economic backgrounds.
Ultimately, forcing “contextual” standards on universities will lower the quality of our top institutions, as it will compromise both the judgement of admissions tutors and a policy of admission by academic merit. We would win a Pyrrhic victory – widening access to universities but compromising the quality and value of higher education.
The proper response to the problem of access to university for students from disadvantaged social or educational backgrounds is not to intervene clumsily in university admissions, but to improve the educational outcomes at the school level, and for schools to improve the support and encouragement they give for potential university applicants. Penalising universities for missing access targets, and forcing them to compromise their academic judgement, is not a policy of “fair access”: it simply ignores the root causes of the problem.