Equality and diversity in access agreements

Why should you include equality and diversity in your access agreement?

Legal requirement

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:

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 equality impact assess 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. Given that activities targeted at those from lower socio-economic groups and low participation neighbourhoods count towards your access agreement spend, this may provide an opportunity for you to meet both your equality objectives and access agreement targets.

Many universities and colleges 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

Overview

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 and access work impacts on different groups, so you can see whether you need to target aspects of your access and student success 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.

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:

If you need further help developing priorities and activities, you may wish to contact an external organisation such as the Equality Challenge Unit 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 (of proportion of the cost) associated with this in your ‘OFFA-countable’ access agreement expenditure.

Monitoring and evaluation

In future monitoring returns and access agreements, we will require greater evidence of the commitment and impact of your work on equality and diversity. Therefore you will need to consider how you will monitor and evaluate the impact of your activities on protected equalities groups.

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:

Related guidance

Setting your access agreement strategy

What should you invest in?

Government guidance on the Equality Act 2010 including the public sector equality duty

List of protected characteristics

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