Top Universities Will Need to Accept Fewer Middle Class Students to Meet Diversity Targets, Regulator Admits
Camilla Turner, Telegraph, February 21, 2019
Top universities will need to accept fewer middle class students in order to meet diversity targets, the Office for Students has admitted.
Russell Group institutions must “eliminate” the gap in admissions between wealthier students and their less well-off peers within 20 years, according to targets published by the universities watchdog.
But in order to achieve this, they will need to “considerably reduce” the number of students they admit from well-off backgrounds, according to the regulator’s analysis.
The OFS considered two ways in which the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students could be narrowed over the next two decades. Under one scenario, the country’s most prestigious universities — where the gap between rich and poor students is the most pronounced — would need to roughly double their intake over the next 20 years.
However, the OFS notes that the Department for Education’s forecasts on student numbers indicate that there is not going to be any major growth in the future, rendering this scenario is unlikely.
The other scenario under which universities could meet the diversity targets — based on the current numbers of students remaining stable — would be “considerably reducing the number of students entering higher education” from well-off backgrounds.
Professor Claire Callender, an expert in higher education policy at University College London’s Institute of Education and Birkbeck University, said that such a move would provoke an “enormous backlash”.
She questioned where setting quotas for social class would fall foul of equalities law, adding: “If the only option is to have some form of positive discrimination, I am not clear whether it would be permitted under the law.”
Prof Callendar went on: “Targets are very useful and certainly it is important that universities do everything they can to widen the participation of underrepresented groups.”
While there is sympathy for the general aim of improving diversity, she warned that there would be “quite considerable resistance” from institutions, parents and students to the idea of capping the number of well-off undergraduates.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, described the suggestion that universities could cap the number of well-off students as “radical”.
“The OfS is right to look to radical solutions to increase access at the most selective universities,” he said. “Despite efforts and some progress in the past two decades, the gap remains wide.”
The social mobility charity has championed the use of “contextual admissions”, where students from poor backgrounds are given places at top universities based on lower A-level offers than their well-off peers.
“Doing this could radically shift the balance and increase the numbers of the poorest students studying at the most selective universities,” he said.
The OFS documents which reveal the scenarios were published as part of a tranche of papers released following a recent board meeting where the widening participation targets were set.
So far, the regulator has only published diversity targets for “higher tariff” institutions, which refers to members of the Russell Group and a handful of other universities which set high entry requirements for incoming students.
The OFS is waiting until after the Prime Minister’s higher education review is published to set targets for the entire sector.
In 2017, Theresa May ordered a review of post-18 education led by Philip Augar, a former equities broker. It is due to report to the Department for Education later this year.
The Prime Minister came under pressure on the issue after it was felt that Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish tuition fees won support from young voters in last year’s general election.