1108 GMT July 17, 2018
Top institutions are concerned about the ‘reputational damage’ that could ensue from making lower offers to disadvantaged students, according to a new report.
Universities are under increasing pressure from the government to increase the number of students from deprived backgrounds, telegraph.co.uk wrote.
Under the current fees system, any English university wishing to charge tuition fees of over around £6,000 must have an ‘access and participation plan’ approved by the universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS).
This sets out what the university intends to do to recruit and retain youngsters from disadvantaged families. A widely used method to help to boost diversity is making ‘contextual offers’, where universities request lower A-level grades from poor students as a condition of entry compared to those demanded of their wealthier peers.
But some Russell Group universities are concerned about the impact this will have on their standing in league tables, according to a report published by the University of Exeter.
Researchers from Exeter’s Centre for Social Mobility interviewed officials from nine of the country’s top institutions including Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, and the London School of Economics and Political Sciences.
“Institutions have raised concerns about reputational damage from making reduced offers, including institutional positioning in the university league tables,” the report said.
“The lack of sector wide movement on differential offers may limit institutions’ willingness to act unilaterally towards adjusting their grade criteria (and depending on the strength of their internal and external drivers).
“The issue of league tables and the ‘perverse’ effect this has on institutions, was identified as a risk to reduced grades cited by many stakeholders, although a number of stakeholders highlighted that more consistent sector-wide use of differential offers would reduce the potential impact for individual institutions.”
Some Russell Group universities are concerned about the impact this will have on their standing in league tables
Experts have previously claimed that the pressure to admit more disadvantaged students is to blame for British universities are slipping down the world rankings.
Professor Alan Smithers, who is head of the center for education and employment at the University of Buckingham, has said that the decline was because “universities are no longer free to take their own decisions and recruit the most talented students which would ensure top positions in league tables”.
He added that Britain’s top universities are under pressure to recruit more disadvantaged students, and that this “has diverted their attention from really providing the subjects and the fields that they feel are the most appropriate and drawing in the best students”.
Chris Millward, the Office for Students’ (OFS) Director of Fair Access and Participation, urged universities to set ‘more ambitious’ plans to increase their intake of poor students.
“We are a long way from equality of opportunity in relation to access to higher education," he said.
“So in the coming years, I will be expecting universities and colleges to set more ambitious targets in their access and participation plans to narrow the gaps.”
He explained that universities must “take measures to increase the pool of applicants with the high levels of attainment needed to enter many universities”.
Milward added that A level grades “can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved”.
Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, said that all their member universities take into account students’ backgrounds during the admissions process.
“Qualifications and predicted grades are a key indicator of academic ability, but universities take a range of other factors into account to understand the applicant's achievements in context,” she said.
“This includes the school or college attended, where a student grew up, whether they are a care leaver, or whether they are the first in their family to enter higher education.”