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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 November, 2004, 00:06 GMT
Offa opens its doors to controversy
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic

It is a question that many are asking: "Is the Office for Fair Access really necessary?"

The new universities watchdog for England was launched this week. On the very same day, the Conservatives said they would close it down within 24 hours of a Tory election victory.

The new Director of Offa, Sir Martin Harris, knew his office was unpopular with many even before he had opened for business.

Many see it as the embodiment of government attempts at "social engineering".

To try to pacify critics, Sir Martin kept his claws well hidden and played the cuddly pussycat promising he would not interfere in university admissions.

He said his role was simply to ensure that universities were doing all they could to broaden the pool of applicants.

The biggest obstacle to university access from poorer and under-represented groups is that young people from these backgrounds do not apply
This would mean out-reach schemes, bursaries, summer schools and any other techniques that might encourage applications from a wider range of students.

He also expects universities to provide bursaries to help those from poorer homes with their living and fee costs.

But whether or not you believe Sir Martin and the government when they say Offa will not be about "social engineering", the question remains: is it really necessary?

After all, a new analysis of student admissions suggests that universities are already taking many more students from poorer homes and from state schools.

The Sutton Trust, the charity committed to widening access for under-privileged students, analysed admissions to 13 "leading" universities.

It found that the number of students from the poorest post-code districts getting into these universities had risen by 49% over the past 5 years. That was more than double the rate of increase for students from more affluent areas.

An analysis of school backgrounds showed a similar pattern of widening access. 68% of places at these elite institutions went to state school pupils, up from 61% five years ago.

Is Offa needed?

Amongst those universities that had greatly increased their intake from poorer districts were: Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh.

So, with progress like this is Offa really needed?

There are already funding incentives, or penalties depending on how you look at it, to encourage universities to broaden their student intake.

Most, if not all, universities now have offices dedicated to Widening Participation, as the jargon describes it.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that there are any admissions tutors out there who do not want to attract the very best students whatever their social class or school background.

The result is that, for many years now, the number of students from poorer backgrounds has been increasing.

lecture hall
Participation at the elite universities is widening
Supporters of Offa would probably accept that all of this is true.

But in defence of the need for more action, they might point out, as does the Sutton Trust, that there are around 3,000 state school students each year who fail to get into the elite universities even though they achieved the necessary A-level grades.

They might add that, although the absolute numbers of students from the lowest social classes has risen, the class gap remains as wide as ever because of the overall increase in student numbers.

Although 30% of young people live in what are known as "low participation neighbourhoods", they win just 8% of the places at top universities.

The middle-classes do indeed still hold a tight grip on the more prestigious institutions and degree courses.

Sobering reminder

Two years ago, the National Audit Office reported that students from social classes IIIm, IV, and V had particularly low representation at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and the LSE and on all medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses.

The political argument over widening participation is now coming to a head. Voters will have a real choice at the election: they can back a party that believes in Offa or one that will scrap it overnight.

But the National Audit Office report provides one sobering reminder that the real work of widening participation will not take place in universities but in schools.

The biggest obstacle to university access from poorer and under-represented groups is not the attitudes of admissions tutors but the simple fact that young people from these backgrounds do not apply.

And they do not apply because they do not have the qualifications. According to the National Audit Office, over 40% of youngsters in Social Class V leave full-time education at 16.

Only 13% achieve Level 3 qualifications (A-level or equivalent).

So, whatever Offa does or does not achieve, the really big task lies not in how universities handle applications and admissions but in raising achievement in schools.


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SEE ALSO:
Wider intake at top universities
11 Nov 04 |  Education
'No quotas plan' for universities
08 Nov 04 |  Education
University entry overhaul planned
14 Sep 04 |  Education
Student access benchmarks 'flawed'
15 Oct 04 |  Education
Changes worry admissions tutors
14 Sep 04 |  Education


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