Comment Blog 30 November, 2018

Better data and performance measures to continue improving access for disadvantaged students

Reform’s report proposes a policy agenda for increasing the participation of disadvantaged students at ‘elite’ universities. It is right that universities are scrutinised in their efforts to continue making campuses more inclusive and diverse. Russell Group universities believe passionately in the transformative power of higher education and we continuously reflect on our activity and its impact.

As the report points out, addressing the barriers to progression for under-represented students is a complex and continuing challenge. The UK’s universities are spending £745.6 million annually, according to Reform's report, on initiatives to widen access and support success for disadvantaged students, and both Government and universities want to make sure this spending is effective. We recognise there are no quick wins or easy fixes, so it is important that efforts are being made to embed robust evaluation into the range of access and participation programmes being run.

As academic institutions, universities are well-placed to analyse evidence and interrogate the results of access initiatives to understand their impact over time. There are a number of actions which the Government and the sector regulator, the Office for Students, could take to help universities effectively target and evaluate their work.

First, we need access to the right data to be able to identify and reach out to young people from deprived backgrounds who face the toughest challenges in progressing to selective universities – right now this is not always available.

The Russell Group recently proposed that universities are given access to a wider range of indicators of socio-economic and educational disadvantage in order to understand and accurately identify characteristics of deprivation. Instead, there is an over-riding focus on area-based measures (such as the participation of local areas - or POLAR - classification groups) by the Office for Students and others who seek to assess the performance of universities in widening access.

Indeed, Reform’s report relies on POLAR3 data alone to rank institutions based on their performance. But these kinds of measures do not align with definitions of disadvantage used in schools and do not necessarily correlate with socio-economic status, so focusing on them in isolation can be misleading.

For example, many areas in London have high rates of participation in higher education despite the prevalence of other kinds of disadvantage. Approximately 45 per cent of local areas in London are classified as being amongst the most educationally advantaged in the country (based on POLAR data) compared with only one per cent classified as being amongst the least educationally advantaged. This is despite London having a greater proportion of income-deprived children than anywhere else in the UK.

We therefore welcome Reform’s call for the DfE to provide a dataset, resembling information from the National Pupil Database, which will act as a better measure of disadvantage for universities to use to make sure they can reach out to the young people in greatest need of their support.

Second, the focus on outcomes in evaluating and assessing universities’ performance on access needs to be broadly defined to recognise the range of benefits which access schemes can have in improving life chances for those from under-represented backgrounds.

In order to address disparities in attainment, aspirations and expectations between disadvantaged young people and their more advantaged peers, universities are working with schools to intervene early on. And the earlier an outreach intervention takes place, the harder it can be to convert this into direct gains to student recruitment for the university running the initiative.

But this shouldn’t matter. Universities’ outreach activities improve young people’s lives and promote diversity within higher education as a whole – regardless of whether this improves the progression of disadvantaged students to the host university or not.

Reform’s report points to an example of a Russell Group institution, the University of Glasgow, which found 250 participants in its flagship widening access programme had progressed to study at Glasgow but four times more (around 1,000) had gone on to other universities. This is a positive outcome, and the new regulatory framework for universities in England should recognise this broader value of outreach work.

Formal recognition for the holistic impact of outreach should be built into the regulation of universities and the assessment of their performance. This would avoid encouraging institutions to compete with one another for a small pool of suitably qualified disadvantaged applicants, rather than collaborating and engaging with young people earlier on to really move the dial on widening access.

Universities have a key role to play in making sure students from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to access the benefits of higher education, working with schools, parents and local communities. A key way the Government can support these efforts is by identifying and making available effective targeting and performance measurements to enable universities to continue making progress.

Sarah is Head of Policy at the Russell Group which represents 24 leading UK universities.