OFFA publishes new strategic plan

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has today [Thursday 26 February] published its new strategic plan, setting out how it will work with universities and colleges to improve fair access to higher education. The plan, which covers the period 2015-2020, sets out ambitious objectives [note 1] for improving the rates of disadvantaged students entering and succeeding in higher education, and seeks to close the participation gap between the most and least advantaged.

As well as seeking progress across the sector, OFFA has made an increase in the rates of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering universities with the highest entrance requirements a specific strategic aim. Currently, young people from the most advantaged backgrounds are 6.8 times more likely to enter highly selective universities than those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds [note 2].

Commenting on the new strategic plan, Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said:

“Our new strategic plan sets out a vision for how we will maximise the impact of OFFA’s single focus regulation, strengthening our ability to offer intelligent, evidence-based regulation. Working in close partnership with the sector, we want to build on the striking progress we have seen in access to higher education, progress that has accelerated since OFFA was established. There are now record rates of disadvantaged young people entering higher education and we are also starting to see significant progress [note 3] at universities with the highest entrance requirements.

“Despite this recent progress at highly selective universities, the participation gap between the most and least advantaged at these institutions is still much too high. My message to highly selective universities is simple: I welcome the efforts that you are making to widen the pool of potential applicants. There has been very significant positive progress in the last three years. Now is the time to cement this progress, and ensure that people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to succeed at highly selective universities are much more likely to realise the opportunity to do so. Highly selective universities often provide a springboard to postgraduate study and professional careers, so closing this gap is crucial if we are to make significant steps towards a more socially mobile society.

“For fair access to be truly meaningful, universities and colleges need to consider how they can best support disadvantaged students throughout their studies, and as they prepare for life after graduation. So, while the biggest challenge for highly selective universities is to reduce the participation gap, the challenge for many other universities is to improve outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring that they are well prepared to accrue the life-changing benefits higher education can bring. Our strategic plan recognises the diversity of the sector, and we will continue to give the universities and colleges that we regulate the flexibility to balance their focus upon those areas where they most need to make progress.

“Sitting alongside our challenge to universities and colleges is an increased commitment to provide practical support to them. That’s why expanding the evidence base is a key element of our new plan. With over £700 million invested annually through access measures, it’s important to ensure that this money is spent where it can have the most impact. We want to learn from good practice, ensuring that the whole sector is aware of some of the activities and programmes that work best to improve fair access. We’ll be carrying out our own research, and working in partnership to encourage more discussion, research and evaluation on issues related to fair access.

“This is an ambitious plan. But the lifting of the cap on student numbers from 2015 provides us with a real opportunity to make further, faster progress. I am confident that universities and colleges will rise to the challenge and that, working together, we can make significant progress towards breaking the link between your background and your chances of going to university.”


For further information, contact

Zita Adamson (OFFA Communications Manager) or Sean Beynon (OFFA Press and Communications Adviser) on 0117 931 7171, or email

Notes for editors

  1. OFFA has set ambitious objectives for how we will support and challenge universities and colleges to make improvements. These objectives recognise that fair access is only meaningful if students from disadvantaged backgrounds not only enter higher education but succeed in their studies and are well prepared to progress to employment or further study.

We are using Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) as a measure of disadvantage. POLAR shows how the chances of young people entering higher education vary by where they live in the UK. It classifies students into five groups (quintiles 1 to 5) based on where they live prior to starting their first degree. Quintile 1 areas are those where there is the lowest participation in higher education by young people, and which tend to be areas of the most disadvantage; quintile 5 areas are those with greatest participation in higher education and generally the least disadvantage; quintiles 2, 3 and 4 are in between.

In order to see further, faster improvement, OFFA will support and challenge the sector to: improve access across the whole sector; improve access to highly selective universities; and ensure disadvantaged students are supported to be successful in their studies.

Improving access across the whole sector

We will judge our strategy a success if the young participation rate from quintile 1 entering higher education increases from 20.4 per cent in 2011-12 to 36.0 per cent by 2019-20, and the participation rate for quintile 2 increases from 29.2 per cent in 2011-12 to 46.0 per cent by 2019-20. To reduce the gap in participation, we will judge our strategy a success if the quintile 5: quintile 1 ratio decreases from 2.9 in 2011-12 to 2.0 by 2019-20.

Improving access to highly selective universities

We will judge our strategy a success if the entry rate for English 18 year olds from quintile 1 increases from 3.2 per cent in 2014-15 to 5 per cent by 2019-20, and the entry rate from quintile 2 increases from 5.1 per cent in 2014-15 to 7 per cent by 2019-20. To reduce the gap in participation, we will judge our strategy a success if the quintile 5: quintile 1 ratio decreases from 6.8 in 2014-15 to 5.0 by 2019-20.

Ensuring disadvantaged students are supported to be successful in their studies

We will judge our strategy a success if the proportion of young entrants from quintile 1 remaining in study after their first year to reaches 92 per cent by 2019-20.

  1. For further information please see page 80 of UCAS’ End of Cycle 2014 report.
  1. Young people in the most disadvantaged areas of England were 13 per cent more likely to enter a higher tariff institution in 2014 than in 2013, and around 40 per cent more likely than three years ago. For further information please see page 78 of UCAS’ End of Cycle 2014 report.
  1. 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 for people from under-represented groups. All English universities and colleges that wish to charge higher fees must make plans to promote and sustain fair access, including outreach (e.g. summer schools, mentoring, after-school tuition, links with schools and colleges in disadvantaged areas), activities to improve retention and success, and financial support such as bursaries and scholarships. The plans are called access agreements and must be agreed with OFFA, which then monitors their implementation. For more information see

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