Government tells universities to reach out to students from poorest neighbourhoods

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The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills has recently issued new guidance to the Director of Fair Access (DFA) calling for universities to work more closely with schools in poorer neighbourhoods.

The new guidance sets out the government’s ambitions for universities to help increase social mobility and raise young people’s aspirations.  This builds on the Prime Minister’s announcement in January of a new requirement for universities to publish data on the backgrounds of their applicants to ensure greater transparency on university admissions.

According to Universities Minister, Jo Johnson:

“Going to university opens doors to a brighter future, but too many students are still missing out.  We are asking universities to go further and faster than ever before, especially the most selective institutions.  This guidance for the first time identifies the groups of students where most attention is needed, such as white boys from the poorest homes and students with specific learning difficulties.  We want to see smarter spending from universities, with more outreach into neighbourhoods with low university entry rates and much deeper partnerships with local schools.”

According to the guidance all higher education providers charging tuition fees over the basic amount, currently set at £6,000, will have to have an agreement containing benchmarks proposed by the university on measures to improve access, student success and progression for disadvantaged students, which must be approved by the DFA.

Access agreements will also be expected to:

  • build further partnerships with schools to target neighbourhoods with low university participation rates, leveraging the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach to help schools and colleges offer university experiences to their pupils to inspire them into higher education; and
  • improve support for students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s Syndrome and ADD/ADHD.  This is the first time that guidelines have made a specific mention of supporting them as a target group.

Universities’ access agreements will be monitored and reviewed annually by the DFA and their progress published to help ensure they are meeting their obligations.

The DFA has issued strategic access agreement guidance  to universities and colleges explaining the key priorities for this year’s access agreements and setting out what is new.  All institutions wanting an access agreement for 2017-18 will need to read this guidance.

The DFA has also produced a step-by-step guide to producing an access agreement.  This is designed to support those who are new to writing access agreements, or as a reference for those wishing to find further information on particular areas of their access agreement.

Universities’ funding through their access agreements has risen from £404 million in 2009 to £745 million this coming year.  The guidance also highlights the need to concentrate this funding where it will have a genuine impact on young people most in need, in particular:

  • outreach to disadvantaged neighbourhoods (rather than efforts such as offering a small number of bursaries which the DFA considers can sometimes lead to cherry-picking the best students at the expense of others who also have the potential to benefit); and
  • tackling drop-out rates to ensure students are able to complete their courses and progress on to rewarding careers.

For more information or advice in this area please contact Chris Hook on 0191 211 7929 or [email protected].