Press release

Universities told to reach out to students from poorest neighbourhoods under new guidance

The government has issued new guidance calling for universities to work more closely with schools in poorer neighbourhoods.

The government has issued new guidance to the Director of Fair Access (DFA), setting out the government’s clear ambitions for the progress universities should be making to boost social mobility and raise young people’s aspirations.

The guidance builds on the Prime Minister’s announcement of a new requirement for universities to routinely publish data on the backgrounds of their applicants to shine a light on their admissions processes.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson said:

Going to university opens doors to a brighter future, but too many students are still missing out. We are asking universities to go further and faster than ever before, especially the most selective institutions. This guidance for the first time identifies the groups of students where most attention is needed, such as white boys from the poorest homes and students with specific learning difficulties. We want to see smarter spending from universities, with more outreach into neighbourhoods with low university entry rates and much deeper partnerships with local schools.

The guidance sets out the government’s advice to the Director of Fair Access outlining the priorities for widening access and success for disadvantaged students.

All higher education providers charging tuition fees over the basic amount, currently £6,000, must have an agreement containing benchmarks proposed by the university on measures to improve access, student success and progression for disadvantaged students, which must be approved by the Director of Fair Access.

The government’s ambitions include meeting the Prime Minister’s goals of:

  • doubling the proportion of university entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds by the end of this Parliament from 2009 levels
  • increasing the number of BME students going to university by 20% by 2020

Under the guidance, access agreements will also be expected to:

  • further build partnerships with schools to target neighbourhoods with low university participation rates, leveraging the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach to help schools and colleges offer university experiences to their pupils to inspire them into higher education
  • better support students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s Syndrome and ADD/ADHD – the first time that guidelines have made a specific mention of supporting them as a target group

Universities’ access agreements will be monitored and reviewed annually by the DFA and their progress published, to help ensure they are meeting their obligations.

Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said:

I am very pleased to receive this latest guidance, and look forward to working with Ministers and the whole higher education sector as we strive we achieve the Prime Minister’s fair access goals. To coincide with this Ministerial guidance, I will be issuing new access agreement guidance to universities and colleges. For the first time this guidance specifically asks institutions to consider how they can work to widen access to white men from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This group is among the least likely to enter higher education.

I will be expecting to see an increase in outreach work – with universities working to raise aspirations and attainment among people from disadvantaged backgrounds – so that nobody with the potential to benefit from higher education feels that their background holds back their ambition.

Universities’ funding through their access agreements has risen from £404 million in 2009 to £745 million this coming year. The guidance also highlights the need to increasingly focus this spending where it will have a genuine impact on young people most in need. In particular:

  • outreach to disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This will inspire students into higher education, rather than more tokenistic efforts such as offering small numbers of bursaries which can often lead to cherry-picking the best students at the expense of others who also have the potential to benefit
  • tackling drop-out rates to ensure students are able to complete their courses and progress on to rewarding careers. There is a considerable disparity in non-completion rates, ranging from 1.2% to 25.2% at English institutions, which the guidance highlights as an area for new access agreements to focus improvement on

Although recent data shows that applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds are at an all-time high, there is still much more to be done:

  • only 10% of young white British men from the most disadvantaged backgrounds progress to university
  • 11% of black students did not continue their studies after the first year, compared to an average of 7.1%
  • elite universities have a particular challenge, only 6% of young entrants to Russell Group universities are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and only 3% at Oxford

Notes to editors:

  1. According to UCAS data for their end of cycle report in 2015, the entry rate for the most disadvantaged 18 year-olds has risen under the current funding system to 18.5%, the highest ever recorded: making disadvantaged young people in England around a third more likely to enter university in 2015 than 5 years ago.

  2. The guidance also supports the government’s wider HE reforms, and the introduction of a new Teaching Excellence Framework which will put teaching quality and student outcomes at the heart of how universities operate and are assessed.

  3. The guidance will be published on OFFA’s website. Media queries for the Director of Fair Access should be directed to Sean Beynon Tel: 0117 931 7022.

  4. Interview requests for Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities, should be directed to Joanna Robotham Tel: 020 7215 5973