The watchdog for English higher education is launching a new centre to bolster efforts to increase the number of disadvantaged students in higher education.
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said the setting up of the Evidence and Impact Exchange marked the start of a “new, more strategic approach” to improving access and participation at universities in England. It is due to start operating in April.
The new approach, announced on Thursday, is intended to close the gap in the educational outcomes between ethnic minority students and their peers, and between disabled and non-disabled students within 20 years.
The regulator said that in the 2016-17 academic year, universities and other higher education providers in England spent £888m on activities designed to widen participation by disadvantaged groups, but there was “relatively limited hard evidence” on what worked most effectively.
Mr Millward said the new exchange, which will be run jointly by King’s College London, Nottingham Trent University and the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, would provide this evidence.
“We expect universities to up their game,” Mr Millward said.
Universities would be expected to set themselves “stretching targets” for attracting disadvantaged students and take “real action” to close gaps in participation and achievement.
Despite the money spent by universities to encourage applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds, UCAS, the universities and colleges admissions service, announced in December that progress towards making institutions more inclusive slowed in the 2017-18 academic year. The service said the proportion of students who came from the UK’s most deprived areas had edged up only 0.4 percentage points, to 19.7 per cent of new entrants for 2017-18, compared with the previous year.
The OfS, which replaced the Higher Education Funding Council for England as the universities watchdog in January last year, has been charged with making universities more representative of the wider population. Institutions are required to draw up access and participation plans in order to be registered with the OfS.
Mr Millward said all students should have equal opportunities to access and succeed in higher education and to achieve successful and rewarding careers. “This is not currently the case and the rate of progress in achieving equality is far too incremental,” he said.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, the sector lobby group, said the exchange had the ability to provide universities with evidence on how best to tackle issues such as the gap between the results achieved by black and ethnic minority students and others.
“We look forward to engaging with the exchange to ensure it supports universities to deliver further progress,” he said.
The establishment of the new centre comes as the sector awaits the outcome of Philip Augar’s review of over-18 education in England. A consortium of educational charities said in response to the announcement that they hoped the review would not cut funding for the sector, as that would endanger gains in wider participation.