Equality and diversity in access agreements
Why should you include equality and diversity in your access agreement?
The Equality Act 2010 requires universities and colleges to take equality issues into account when designing policies (including internal policies) and services, and to review such issues regularly. Under the Act’s public sector equality duty, you must have due regard to the need to:
- eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act
- advance equality of opportunity between people who share a ‘protected characteristic’ and those who do not
- foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
OFFA does not regulate whether you meet your legal obligations under the Act but, when designing new access agreements or amending an existing agreement, we require you to demonstrate that you have executed these responsibilities. Your institution’s equality and diversity team can help you to conduct an equality impact assessment of your access agreement.
OFFA does not give legal advice. If you are unsure whether you are meeting your legal obligations under the Equality Act, you should seek your own legal advice, or contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
To align your access and equality strategies
Your access agreement can help to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. People who share protected characteristics can be under-represented in overall numbers, more likely to leave before finishing their course, less likely to achieve the highest qualification classifications or less likely to be employed or in further study after graduation than those who do not. Thus, there may be many opportunities for aligning your equality and widening participation strategies.
Although OFFA’s definition of ‘under-represented groups’ does not explicitly include all the protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act 2010, many protected characteristics inter-link with groups that are under-represented in higher education, such as disability, race, age (mature students) and gender. For example, BME and disabled people are statistically over-represented within lower socio-economic groups and low participation neighbourhoods. This may provide an opportunity for you to meet both your equality objectives and access agreement targets.
Many higher education providers already recognise some of these issues for protected characteristic groups within their widening participation strategy but often do not link this to their work to meet the requirements of the Equality Act. As noted in the Action on Access briefing Social mobility through higher education: aligning widening participation and equality, most higher education institutions target disabled and black and minority ethnic (BME) students as part of their widening participation strategy but of these, only half make an explicit link between this and their institutional equality and diversity strategy.
How to include equality and diversity in your access agreement
You must provide a broad overview of how your access agreement activities help to advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and those who do not: for example, financial support packages for disabled students; retention activity targeted at mature students; or activities to address the unequal outcomes between different ethnic groups. We do not require an exhaustive list but we are keen to better understand institutional focus on equality and diversity activities.
This overview should evaluate your current access initiatives by protected characteristic to highlight any differences in how your access agreement work impacts on different groups, so you can see whether you need to target aspects of your access, student success and progression work at particular groups of prospective and current students. Where possible, you should provide evidence, such as information taken from equality impact assessments, on the possible equality implications of any proposed changes, and what steps you will take to remove or minimise any adverse effects.
In order to understand the impact of your activities and services on those with protected characteristics, you will need to carefully consider your monitoring and evaluation arrangements.
Linking equality and diversity and access strategies
We consider it good practice for access agreements and equality and diversity work to be closely linked, especially if your equality and diversity team does not sit in the same department as your widening participation team. Your equality and diversity team can advise you on the areas you may wish to focus on in relation to protected characteristics and access and student success. This may include representation on advisory boards or committees.
To help you identify relevant priorities for your institution, you may wish to compare the internal equalities data you collect with sector-wide trends. There are also other data sources which may be of use such as:
- HEFCE equality and diversity data
- Higher Education Information Database (HEIDI) equality data
- the Equality Challenge Unit publication Equality in higher education: statistical report 2016
If you need further help developing priorities and activities, you may wish to contact an external organisation such as the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) which is funded by the higher education sector’s representative bodies and UK funding bodies to advise universities and colleges on equality issues. You may include the cost (or a proportion of the cost) associated with this in your access agreement expenditure.
Targets relating to equality and diversity
We encourage you to consider including targets on improving equality and diversity in your access agreement. When doing so, you may wish to consider the following:
- If you are including a target in relation to disabled students, you should consider whether a target based on the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA’s) indicator of students who receive Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is the most appropriate measure, particularly following the changes to DSA funding. For example, you may wish to set a target focusing on entrants declaring a disability rather than students in receipt of DSA.
- Students with different impairments face different barriers to access and student retention and success, so you may wish to consider whether your targets account for this. For example, as well as setting broader disability targets, you might consider what support a student with a mental impairment may need, separately to what support a student with mobility and physical impairments may need.
- Some ethnic groups or sub-groups are well represented in higher education generally, while others are under-represented. Any targets you include relating to ethnicity should take into account which ethnic groups or sub-groups are under-represented in your institution. For example, at a national level, women of Bangladeshi heritage are under-represented in higher education, but this may not be the case in every institution.
- You may wish to explore whether there is a difference in retention and attainment by students who share protected characteristics such as ethnic group, sex or disability, and set targets accordingly. For example, at a national level, male students are more likely to withdraw from their course and Black students are statistically the least likely to achieve a first class or 2:1 honours degree (source: ECU, Equality in higher education: statistical report 2016).
- Detailed analysis of your data may identify under-representation or issues around retention and attainment of students who share a protected characteristic in certain subject areas which you may wish to address in your targets. For example, nationally women are less well represented in engineering, technology and some science subjects (source: ECU, Equality in higher education: statistical report 2016).
Government guidance on the Equality Act 2010 including the public sector equality duty
The Action on Access briefings Social mobility through higher education: aligning widening participation and equality and Mainstreaming widening participation and equality in institutions may be useful.
For guidance on advancing equality and diversity in your institution, including best practice and related research, see the Equality Challenge Unit website.