Director of Fair Access sets out way forward for widening access to highly selective universities

Identifying bright but disadvantaged youngsters at an early age and then giving them sustained support and advice over a number of years is the key to widening access to the most selective universities[1], says Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access.

In his report ‘What more can be done to widen access to highly selective universities?’ commissioned by the Government in November 2009[2] to inform the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, Sir Martin says it is both socially unacceptable and economically wasteful that too few talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds realise their full potential.

While widening participation as a whole has been very successful, particularly over the last five years, the report contains new analysis showing that 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. 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.[3]

Sir Martin warmly acknowledges that highly selective universities are already making considerable efforts to widen participation among disadvantaged young people and points out that without these efforts, in a period of increasing competition for places, participation among this group could well have been significantly worse.

But he 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’[4] to apply to highly selective universities and courses, and recommends that selective universities should increase the coverage and volume of successful extended outreach programmes[5] 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.

“Right at the heart of the matter is the need to ensure that those young people with the potential to succeed in a research-intensive university, but who do not currently choose to apply, are identified as early as possible. This must certainly not be later than the end of year 9[6],says Sir Martin.

Sir Martin also recommends[7] 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

He also recommends that the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now the Department for Education) should consider introducing a measure relating to students progression at age 18+ by which all schools, including 11-16 schools, can be publicly evaluated.

Recognising the considerable existing efforts of selective universities to widen access to disadvantaged young people, Sir Martin says: “Evaluation to date provides convincing evidence… that the outreach programmes of these universities have had a positive effect on their target groups (disadvantaged students). It would therefore be fair to conclude that without these efforts we would have seen a decline in both the absolute and relative participation rates of such students in the most selective third of institutions.”

As it is, analysis commissioned by OFFA and published alongside this report[8], shows that although there has been a significant rise in participation among disadvantaged young people in HE as a whole since the mid-1990s, participation among the least advantaged 40 per cent of young people at the top third of selective institutions has not changed over the same period. 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. Significantly, this ratio has not increased under the current fee and support arrangements introduced in 2006, supporting the argument that the efforts of the most selective universities have at least maintained participation from the least advantaged groups in recent years.

Sir Martin is clear that his recommendations are ‘not without resource implications’ and recommends that selective universities should re-examine their current additional fee expenditure on bursaries and outreach activities to see whether some of this money, where it is not tightly targeted, could be more usefully spent on extended, co-ordinated outreach targeted at the most able, disadvantaged students.

He also calls on the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance led by Lord Browne of Madingley to consider whether, in the event that the fee cap is raised, there should be any broad conditions requiring the most selective institutions to maintain the appropriate proportions of additional fee income invested in ensuring fair access to their institutions.

“The goal of fair access is too important for the opportunity to be missed at this crucial time” he concludes.


Notes to editors

  • For Sir Martin’s full report, see
  • The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is an independent, non departmental public body established under the Higher Education Act 2004 to help promote and safeguard fair access to higher education. Our main remit is to regulate the charging of higher tuition fees by English universities and colleges offering higher education courses.
  • For further information, contact Zita Adamson, Communications Manager at OFFA, on 0117 931 7272 or 0117 931 7171.

[1] For the purposes of the Report we consider the most selective institutions or courses to be those for which both the entry requirements and the demand for places are high. We have used a number of measures to capture this characteristic. Most frequently we use the most selective third of universities by entry tariff points – see Annex C on page 94

[2] The Government commissioned the report from Sir Martin when it published its HE framework Higher Ambitions – see

[3] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2009) Applications, Offers and Admissions to Research Led Universities: a joint report by the Sutton Trust and BIS. Research Paper No. 5. This research shows that if students from state schools and further education providers were to apply to selective universities in proportion to their attainment, we should expect to see around 4,500 additional pupils from the state sector entering the top 500 courses each year

[4] Young people of high ability who have the potential to do well at the most selective universities but who, because of their disadvantaged background, are the least likely among high ability students to realise that potential

[5] Such schemes incorporate a range of outreach activities such as summer schools, master classes, mentoring etc within a coherent progressive programme of co-ordinated support and events

[6] The age at which students make their GCSE subject choices

[7] See page 87 of Sir Martin’s report for the full recommendations

[8] See Annex C for OFFA-commissioned analysis from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on ‘Trends in young participation by selectivity of institution’

0 comments on “Director of Fair Access sets out way forward for widening access to highly selective universities

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *