The Office for Students responds to ‘Social mobility and elite universities’

Chris Millward responds to HEPI's report on social mobility and elite universities.

Drawing of two doors, one is open and one is closed

If you found the general election campaign frustrating, spare a thought for the nation’s public officials, who were unable to talk about previous, current or future government policy for the duration of it. I’m grateful then to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and to Lee Elliot Major for publishing their report on social mobility and elite universities on the day of the vote, which enables me freely now to respond.    

This is a topic that has concerned governments involving three different parties over the last two decades. All have sought not only to increase participation, but also to improve fair access to those universities with the highest academic entry requirements. As many of the responses to the HEPI report have highlighted, though, a successful higher education sector must be one that offers fair and equal access to different types of courses, experiences and outcomes. And for this to work for all students, it cannot be confined to direct entry from school.     

England’s universities and colleges can be proud of the opportunities they have created for the generation of students that has benefited from their expansion. But as all parts of society have increased their participation, the gaps in access and outcomes have changed relatively little. Whether and where you study, and what you achieve in higher education, continues significantly to be determined by where you started from.

Prior attainment is an important factor, but there is evidence that England is less progressive than other countries in the extent to which our universities consider the potential of students who have succeeded in their own context. This relates not only to their ability to thrive on the course, but also the contribution they can make to a diverse educational environment in which students learn from each other. Our current system gives less priority to this than the pursuit of high entry tariffs, no doubt influenced by the absence of diversity measures within the most influential league tables.  

The stratification that results from this has the effect of diminishing expectations in communities with low levels of participation. This is less about aspiration than a realistic judgement of the likelihood of progression to all parts of higher education. Students in these places need focused and sustained outreach, and a clear offer combining financial and academic support, to build a route through the barriers to entry. They also need more inclusive cultures and practices within universities and colleges to support their success.

We expect universities and colleges to address these imperatives through the access and participation plans they agree with the Office for Students. We are asking them to be more honest in their analysis of equity across the student lifecycle, to be more ambitious in the goals they establish for themselves, to align their investment more clearly with these objectives, and to evaluate and refine their approaches more rigorously. For the institutions covered by the HEPI report, their priority will be to improve access, but for many others the focus has to be on student success. 

We make no apology for shifting the level of ambition and for challenging universities and colleges more robustly than ever before. It’s of course the case that our goals will not be achieved at the current rate of progress. That’s the point of the reforms we have made. But these are entrenched patterns and need a generation to change. So we are agreeing longer plans and trajectories with every university and college, and focusing our efforts now on the particular issues each one needs to address.

Having engaged with more than 200 universities and colleges on this during 2019, I am seeing a step change across the sector. This continues, though, to be predominantly focused on improving opportunities for young people to access the existing models of provision. This may be the right approach for some universities, but it won’t meet the needs of all students, or indeed the nation’s businesses and public services, during the coming years. The next frontier, then, must be to transform the opportunities for adults in higher education. That will be a top priority for 2020.


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Published 18 December 2019

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