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."

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Network Manager - Oldham area - Up to £30,000

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

Teacher of special needs required for Burton on Trent

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Exciting Opportunity, Rand...

Behaviour Support Assistant

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Behaviour Support Worker Th...

Youth Worker / Teaching Assistant - Nottingham

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are looki...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment