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The Hot Seat: Les Ebdon

Wednesday 17-08-2016 - 13:57

Director of Fair Access to Higher Education Les Ebdon, who gave the keynote address to Membership Services Conference today, tells us about the challenges for fair access in a rapidly changing sector.

The Office for Fair Access strives to ensure that people’s income or background doesn’t hinder their ability to succeed in higher education. How does that aim work in practice?

Our role is to make sure that universities and colleges that charge tuition fees of over £6,000 a year have plans in place to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds, are able to get into higher education, are supported in their studies and as they prepare to progress to employment or further study.

As a regulator, our key function is to assess, approve and monitor access agreements. These are documents where universities set out their fee levels, and explain the activities and support they will put in place for disadvantaged students. A publicly funded university or college cannot charge more than £6,000 a year unless they have an access agreement approved by me.

We are also working to help increase understanding about what works best to improve fair access. So, for example, we’re working on research which will help universities and colleges to better understand the impact of both their financial support and the outreach work they do to attract talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education.

As Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, I also do all I can to keep fair access high on the public and political agenda.

In your three years as Director of Fair Access to Education, dramatic changes have occurred in higher education. How have these impacted on the idea of fair access?

Well, the first thing to say is that more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are in higher education than ever before. The gap in participation between the most and least advantaged people is shrinking, including at those universities with the highest average entrance requirements.

But, of course, we are currently in a fast-changing policy environment. My overarching aim is to seize the opportunities for fair access which the Higher Education and Research Bill presents. So I will be working to ensure that the Bill enables us to make further, faster progress on fair access, and avoids any unintended consequences.

What role do students’ unions play in promoting fair access?

They play a really important role, and that role is increasing. As part of my job, I visit universities and colleges all over the country. On these visits I often have the chance to meet students who are giving up their time to improve fair access – for example by working as student ambassadors or offering to act as a buddy to new students. Often student unions play an important role in this crucial work.

In terms of access agreements, we expect universities and colleges to consult with student representatives as they draw up their access agreements. We encourage institutions to do this at an early stage, and a significant number of institutions are working in close partnership with student unions to help ensure that disadvantaged students are able to enter higher education and succeed in their studies.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for improving fair access over the next decade?

I think that the Higher Education and Research Bill, the creation of the Office for Students and the new Teaching Excellence Framework all provide opportunities to make further, faster progress on fair access. I’m also heartened by the government’s commitment to fair access – we’re working towards the government’s goal to double the rates of disadvantaged students by 2020 compared to 2009 levels. Ministers have made clear the importance of fair access and social mobility, and I think there’s a consensus on the need to redouble our efforts to shrink the participation gap.

There are, of course, challenges. The drastic reduction in part-time students worries me – many part-time students are returning to study in order to improve their career prospects and it’s crucial that they have the opportunity to succeed in their studies. We also need to do all we can to reduce the participation gap at institutions with the highest entrance requirements.

OFFA’s role in fair access takes into account the ‘whole student lifecycle’ – meaning that we’re not just interested in students from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into higher education – it’s crucial that they are also properly supported to succeed in their studies and as they prepare for life after graduation. So I’m also concerned about unexplained differential outcomes – where students from some ethnic groups and from disadvantaged areas are less likely to be successful in their studies than their more advantaged peers – even when we take into account factors like entrance requirements which might have an impact on likely success. Reducing these differential outcomes will help to ensure that the life-changing benefits of higher education are available to everyone with the talent to benefit from them.

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