More guidance earlier could help the access agenda


A new   report from  the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), which was  established under the Higher Education Act 2004 to help promote and safeguard fair access to higher education, contains new analysis showing that despite improved access agreements and concerted effort and investment by universities  to improve access to the best universities for disadvantaged pupils,  participation at the top third of selective universities from the least advantaged 40 per cent of young people has remained almost flat since the mid-1990s.

The most advantaged 20 per cent of the young population are now around seven times more likely than the most disadvantaged 40% to attend the most selective institutions. This ratio has increased from six times more likely in the mid-1990s but has not increased further since the mid-2000s.  However the efforts of the most selective universities have at least maintained participation from the least advantaged groups in recent years.  Able young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to attain high grades at school than their advantaged peers of comparable ability and less likely to choose GCSE and A level subjects that keep their options open to apply to selective universities. This ‘attainment gap’ accounts for most of disadvantaged students’ under-representation, with disadvantage affecting a young person’s educational attainment from an early age. What is more, even when they are highly qualified, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to apply to the most selective universities than their advantaged peers

Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access. argues that closer collaboration between selective universities, schools and colleges is needed to identify talented young people from poorer families who are ‘most able but least likely’ to apply to highly selective universities and courses, and recommends that selective universities should increase the coverage and volume of successful extended outreach programmes targeted at the most able students.

The report also identifies the importance of giving comprehensive and impartial advice and guidance over a period of years in order to increase aspiration and attainment and guide students in choosing the right subjects to meet the entry requirements of highly selective universities and courses.

Sir Martin also recommends that selective universities should:

employ peripatetic staff to raise aspirations and encourage pupils to consider applying to highly selective universities, supplementing the academic and financial advice and guidance provided by schools and further education colleges, particularly at the ages of 14 and 16 when GCSE and A level subject choices are made

provide summer schools targeted at the ‘most able least likely’ students, along the lines of Sutton Trust summer schools

review and evaluate their expenditure on bursaries, scholarships and additional outreach to improve the way they target talented disadvantaged students and ensure money is spent on the most effective methods of widening access to highly selective universities make public how well they have met their own widening participation targets in respect of actual entrants as well as applications to their particular university.

The key message is that rather than leave it just to HE institutions to solve the access problem, much more needs to be done and  early on  in Secondary schools to ensure that pupils are  given the right advice to  help them  make the appropriate subject choices at 14,16  and 18   and  of course in ensuring that they get the   right grades  in the right subjects ,to ease access to Higher Education. Politicians are far too keen to pass the buck on this issue.

For Sir Martin’s full report, see


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