The Office for Fair Access closed at the end of 31 March 2018 and responsibility for higher education access regulation transferred to the Office for Students

Targeting students from disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds

Understanding and overcoming the challenges of targeting students from under-represented and disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds


This project will improve understanding of the challenges associated with targeting disadvantaged and under-represented young people from different ethnic groups through access, student success and progression activities.

It aims to:

Why do we need to do this?

Black and minority ethnic (BME) students are a longstanding target group within OFFA’s access agreement guidance, and access to higher education for this group is a stated priority for the Government. A growing body of research shows that there are persistent and significant disparities in the participation rates, retention and outcomes of students from different minority ethnic backgrounds in higher education.

OFFA’s topic briefing on access, success and progression for BME students (published in August 2015) encouraged institutions to disaggregate between different ethnic groups rather than treating BME students as one homogenous group. However, there is evidence that this practice is not yet widely embedded across the sector. For example, in access agreements for 2017-18, 52 per cent of institutions set a target relating to BME students, but none of these targets focussed on a specific ethnic sub-group within this label.

Refining our understanding of appropriate and effective ways to target activities towards students from under-represented and disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds will enable OFFA to better support universities and colleges to accelerate progress in this important area.

What has happened so far?

At the beginning of 2017, OFFA put out a call for evidence on activities targeted at BME students, what stage of the student lifecycle these address, and with what level of specificity they are targeted. The submissions we received showed some evidence of targeting of specific ethnic sub-groups, but a far greater number of activities which only targeted BME students as a collective group, or did not target BME students at all (i.e. had high numbers of BME participants but were not specifically designed for these communities).

In November 2017 OFFA commissioned a team from the Higher Education Academy and the Runnymede Trust, led by Professor Jacqueline Stevenson of the Higher Education Academy, to investigate the work institutions carry out to improve access, success and progression for students from disadvantaged or under-represented ethnic groups.

What is happening now?

Taking a mixed methods approach, the team is:

Project team

Principal Investigator

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson, Associate and Principal Fellow, Higher Education Academy, and Head of Research, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University


Dr Omar Khan, Director, The Runnymede Trust

Dr Joan O’Mahony, Academic Lead, Retention and Success, Higher Education Academy


Bernie Stiell, Senior Research Fellow, Sheffield Hallam University

Farhana Ghaffar, Widening Participation Research and Projects Officer, Oxford Brookes University

What will happen next?

After OFFA closes on 31 March 2018, this project will transfer to the Office for Students (OFS) which will continue to support it as described above.

At the end of this phase, the team will produce a final written report and suite of practical guidance targeted at institutional policy makers, widening participation and outreach staff, academics and staff delivering information, advice and guidance on careers and further study. This will be published by the OFS.

It is hoped that a second phase of this project will be developed, to pilot the methodology developed by the team in a number of institutions. Testing the rigour and efficacy of the resources developed in the first phase will inform the development of future guidance to the sector on how to more effectively support these groups of students.

Want more information?

Contact Richard Shiner, Head of Evidence and Effective Practice (0117 931 7171,