Top universities warned over class bias

 

Top universities must reverse a slide towards inequality and do more to attract students from the poorest backgrounds, the outspoken new head of the universities' access watchdog has warned.

In his first interview since taking office, Professor Les Ebdon, the head of the Office for Fair Access said his regime would be “robust”, demanding tough new targets for taking in poorer students and monitoring the most elite institutions “very closely”.

Professor Ebdon’s appointment provoked huge controversy – particularly among Conservative backbenchers – when he talked about using the "nuclear option" of withdrawing permission from universities to charge more than £6,000 a year if they failed to meet their targets.

At present, most universities take in equal numbers of students from the 40 per cent of most disadvantaged backgrounds and the 20 per cent from the most affluent.

However, at the country's most selective universities. the ratio was one to six "with signs that it is sliding to one to seven", Professor Ebdon said.

"We need to reverse that trend and move it towards one to one," he added. "That is clearly something we should be aiming at as a society.”

"I feel passionate about widening participation and access - and that's because of my background.

"I was brought up on an estate - the first in my family and possibly the first on the estate to go to university. I went to Imperial College and it changed my life."

He added: "I want to give out a key message that OFFA will be more challenging. It will expect people to set challenging targets in their access agreements (which they have to sign to gain permission to charge more than £6,000 a year) and it will be monitoring them very closely."

Professor Ebdon remains a controversial figure. His appointment was vetoed by MPs on the Commons select committee monitoring universities – to whom he will be accountable.  However, he was confirmed in office by Prime Minister David Cameron after Business Secretary Vince Cable stood by him. One Labour MP described the committee’s manoeuvring against him as “a political ambush”.

In his interview, he acknowledged OFFA had never used the "nuclear option" and said he hoped to reach targets through "robust negotiations" with the more selective universities - most of whom are members of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the most research intensive higher education institutions in the UK.

"If you look at the average across the whole sector (for admitting disadvantaged students), the story is a good one," he added. "Participation from disadvantaged groups has gone up recently and doesn't seem to have been affected by the new fees arrangements - but there has clearly been a challenge in the most selective universities where the gap is wide."

Part of the problem was caused by schools whose teachers "don't think their students can aspire to the most selective universities", he added.

"If you don't have aspirations, you see under-performance and that's something we need to challenge to tackle and I think it's probably the biggest challenge.

"If our universities are going to continue to be world-class they have to reach out to the full talent that is out there."

Research from the United States had shown that students from poorer backgrounds offered places with lower qualifications than those from more affluent homes often ended up with higher degree passes.

"There are a number of universities that have identified that students can achieve despite educational disadvantage and become very successful at university," he added. "However, that is a matter for them in their admissions processes."

The general secretary of the University and Colleges Union, Sally Hunt, called on Professor Ebdon to “stick to his guns” on fair access.

“It is encouraging that Professor Ebdon recognises that OFFA has more to do to diversify the make-up of the student body on our campuses,” she said. “The sector, more than ever, needs someone prepared to fight the corner of students from the poorest backgrounds.”

However, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK said: “It is quite right that universities in England are stretched by OFFA through their access agreements. However, final decisions on admissions will always remain for universities to determine.”

Asked if his critics were likely to continue to voice opposition to his appointment, Professor Ebdon said:  "Who knows?  I certainly won't be worrying about them.  I've got a job to do and it's a very important job and I'll be my own toughest critic.

"It was a very tough experience (going through the appointment process) but it convinced me it was a job I really wanted to do."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Practitioner - Faringdon

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunity for you to jo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Developer - Cirencester - £29,000

£25000 - £29000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have be...

Recruitment Genius: Primary School Sports Coach

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Calling all talented Level 2 qu...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us