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What OFFA’s focus on “outcomes and targets” is doing for students from poor families

With tuition fees shooting up to £9,000 a year, there have been growing worries that potential students from poor families will be put off going to university.

Back in December, Simon Hughes put this fear to Vince Cable in the crunch debate on tuition fees. The Business Secretary promised him thenthat, “any university that wants to go beyond £6,000 will have to satisfy very demanding tests of access for low-income families”.

Today the Office for Fair Access publishes the “access agreements” Cable was referring to. It has promised “a greater focus on outcomes and targets”. So at the press conference yesterday morning I asked the obvious question: “Will there be more students from poor families going to university in future?” It took me all day to get an answer.

The first reply from Graeme Davies, OFFAs chief executive, was, “That is the expectation.”

Why then, I asked, in the reams of data being pushed at us is there no statement of the number of poor students that universities are promising to take? And how that compares with the past? I wanted to publish a table of past admissions versus promises of future admissions.

That produced a longer answer, including the words, “Its complicated.” Indeed, as I discovered, it is.

OFFAs instructions to universities say that they must tackle access from “under-represented groups”. It says, “Primarily, these are lower income students”, further subdivided with a category of lowest income. For 2012-13, when the new fees regime kicks in, lower income is defined as students from families with an income of less than £42,600, and the lowest threshold is £25,000.

However, universities are not required to set a target for admissions from lower income groups.


Thats right. Students from poor families are the obvious worry in pubs up and down the country. They are the politicians top priority. They are also OFFAs top priority. And OFFA does require universities to set targets. Yet OFFA does not actually require universities to set a target for admissions of these students.

Unpicking the knot of reasoning that has led to this state of affairs is no simple business.OFFA have made a number of points to me.

  • Income is flawed as an indicator of poverty.You can, for example, have a wealthy but low income family.
  • There are a range of alternative indicators, including neighbourhoods with historically low participation in higher education, the social class of the student and the kind of school attended. But these are all flawed, too.
  • Universities cannot identify families with low income when developing their outreach programmes.

Ive simply bullet pointed this list because I still dont understand how these facts combine into a rationale for the current policy. Which is this.

There is no set format for the access agreements. Universities can specify targets using any of the four indicators listed above – or none of them. For example, they could instead base their agreement on admissions from certain tough schools in their locality.And, by the way, none of the data on this that is being published in the access agreements tomorrow has been tabulated.

Now, I can sympathise with the practical problems universities have in developing a strategy that matches their situation, and all the definitional problems and scope for false incentives. But OFFA has promised “a greater focus on outcomes and targets”.If the primary target is lower income students, then why not make the number of those students a, er, target? Especially since every student who might qualify will have to fill out and sign a detailed questionnaire for their student loan that covers their family income.

More, I wanted to know how Graeme Davies could sound so confident about the number of students from poor families going up. If the commitments of universities are so fluid and un-tabulatable, how does he know?

It turns out that his answer is not based on any targets the universities have set for admissions. It is based on the general idea that universities are spending more money on the problem and their access agreements are consequently promising a lot more activity. Perhaps – and Im reaching here because no one actually said this to me – OFFAs staff have gained an informal impression from the access agreements that somehow when you put all the different indicators together the picture for poor students looks better. It is certainlynot based on any systematic assessment of the commitments on admissions that the universities have made in their agreements.

But fees are shooting up to £9,000 a year. Isnt it possible that that tsunami of revulsion will overwhelm all the efforts of universities, however strenuous?

“Of course,” OFFA eventually told me, “all this is dependent on students not being put off. They are all contingent on that.”

So much for the “greater focus on outcomes”.

See also my interview with Davies predecessor, Martin Harris.