Top universities must set new access targets for pupils from disadvantage backgrounds

Following on from this week’s earlier initial reports, the Independent has more detail today on new OFFA head Professor Les Ebdon and his warning that top universities must reverse a slide towards inequality and do more to attract students from the poorest backgrounds…

In his first interview since taking office, Professor Les Ebdon, the head of the Office for Fair Access said his regime would be “robust”, demanding tough new targets for taking in poorer students and monitoring the most elite institutions “very closely”.

Professor Ebdon’s appointment provoked huge controversy – particularly among Conservative backbenchers – when he talked about using the “nuclear option” of withdrawing permission from universities to charge more than £6,000 a year if they failed to meet their targets.

At present, most universities take in equal numbers of students from the 40 per cent of most disadvantaged backgrounds and the 20 per cent from the most affluent.

However, at the country’s most selective universities. the ratio was one to six “with signs that it is sliding to one to seven”, Professor Ebdon said.

“We need to reverse that trend and move it towards one to one,” he added. “That is clearly something we should be aiming at as a society.”

“I feel passionate about widening participation and access – and that’s because of my background.

“I was brought up on an estate – the first in my family and possibly the first on the estate to go to university. I went to Imperial College and it changed my life.”

He added: “I want to give out a key message that OFFA will be more challenging. It will expect people to set challenging targets in their access agreements (which they have to sign to gain permission to charge more than £6,000 a year) and it will be monitoring them very closely.”

Professor Ebdon remains a controversial figure. His appointment was vetoed by MPs on the Commons select committee monitoring universities – to whom he will be accountable.  However, he was confirmed in office by Prime Minister David Cameron after Business Secretary Vince Cable stood by him. One Labour MP described the committee’s manoeuvring against him as “a political ambush”.

In his interview, he acknowledged OFFA had never used the “nuclear option” and said he hoped to reach targets through “robust negotiations” with the more selective universities – most of whom are members of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the most research intensive higher education institutions in the UK.

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Categories: Policy.

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