80.Value for money for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds was one of the main focuses of our inquiry. Access to higher education is one of the key drivers of social justice in this country, but there remain too many barriers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
81.Higher Education Statistics Authority’s (HESA) latest widening participation data showed a stalling in the proportion of state-educated students entering full-time undergraduate courses. In 2016/17 there was a 0.1 percentage point increase compared with the previous year. In nine out of the Russell Group of 24 universities, the proportion of state school pupils fell over the past year. Written evidence from the Sutton Trust commented on the difference in admissions to providers with higher entry requirements between “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” students:
In 2016 entry rates to higher tariff providers for students from the most advantaged backgrounds was 24.5% in comparison to just 2.3% for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds resulting in young people from the most advantaged backgrounds being 10.8 times more likely to enter higher tariff providers than the most disadvantaged students.
82.In October 2017 David Lammy MP’s freedom of information request revealed the extent of the social justice problem at the University of Oxford and Cambridge University. It showed that the proportion of offers that Oxford and Cambridge made to applicants from the top two social classes rose from 79% in 2010 to 82% and 81% respectively in 2015. Between 2010 and 2015 Cambridge made more offers to students from four of the home counties than to the whole of the north of England. In addition, on average a quarter of Cambridge colleges between 2010 and 2015 failed to make any offers at all to black British applicants.
83.The NAO’s report on ‘The higher education market’ warned of a “two-tier” system developing where the most disadvantaged students attend lower-ranked providers. According to the NAO, from 2011 to 2016 the lowest ranked universities saw an 18% increase in the share of students from low participation areas, compared to 9% in the highest ranked. The NAO highlighted the risk that if this trend continues higher participation by disadvantaged students will not lead to better outcomes.
84.According to data from the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), in the academic year 2015–16 universities and colleges invested £725.2 million in widening participation through access agreements. This represents 27.4% of their income from fees above the basic level. These agreements set out a university’s fee limits and the measures the institution intends to put in place to widen participation and ensure students succeed throughout the student lifecycle. From academic year 2019–20, access and participation plans replace access agreements. Across the whole sector, in institutions with or without access agreements, the total spend was £883.5 million. This is an increase from £802.6 million in 2013–14. Universities and colleges estimate that they will “invest £833.5 million in steady state under their 2017–18 access agreements”.
85.Dr Claire Crawford, Assistant Professor of Economics at University of Warwick, told us that “there is not always a lot co-ordination across different institutions” in terms of work on access and widening participation. She stated that there was not “robust empirical evaluation” of the work different institutions are doing. Similarly Professor Vignoles told us that it was a “mixed bag” in terms of how universities are spending money on widening access.
86.The Office for Students has recently announced a consultation on a proposed new approach to access and participation regulation. Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, has stated an intention to focus more heavily on outcomes and evaluation:
For all activity and financial support, we’ll be tough on our expectations. Evaluation is not an optional extra; it’s critical to making significant progress. We will increase our support in this area, and there will be greater opportunities, through the new Evidence and Impact Exchange, for providers to share effective practice. This extra support will come with greater expectations. It is in everyone’s interest to understand what works best and we all need to raise our game on this.
87.Higher education institutions spend a vast amount of public money on access and participation. The results of this expenditure are not always clear to see. There must be transparency on what they are investing in, a greater focus on outcomes for students and a rigorous evaluation process. In response to the Director of Fair Access’s new proposals we expect to see institutions focusing their efforts on value for money for the most disadvantaged students and facing penalties if sufficient progress is not made.
88.Some higher education providers use contextualised admissions to form a more complete picture of the applicant. Contextual data and information can be used to assess an applicant’s prior attainment and potential, in the context of their individual circumstances. Dr Crawford told us that contextualised admissions are one way to address the low proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in universities. Dr Crawford commented that although improving the attainment of these students should be the aim, contextualised admissions could be used more widely in the interim.
89.A Sutton Trust report, which Dr Crawford co-authored, recommended that highly selective institutions should make greater use of contextualised admissions, including reduced grade offers in order to widen access. The report also described the need for providers to ensure additional support is given to students admitted with lower grades, in recognition of challenges they may face. Commenting on the use of contextualised admissions, Conor Ryan, former Director of Research and Communications at the Sutton Trust, told us:
We showed with free school meal kids, who are least likely to get into university, that you could have a 50% increase in the top 30 universities by having that two-grade offer made to them. It is the same sort of offer that is already being made to a lot of more advantaged young people.
However, it is not enough, as you say, just to do the contextual admissions; it has to be followed up by proper pastoral retention work.
90.Alongside practices such as contextual admissions, we heard evidence that outreach must be better to encourage students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to apply to university. Several submissions from universities described their outreach work with local schools, colleges and communities. The University of Nottingham told us that their work in this area has led to the proportion of students from low-income backgrounds rising from 17% in 2004 to 24% in 2016. University College London’s Horizon scheme runs a Saturday school for Year 10 and 11 students, and a summer school. Of the students enrolled in 2016/17, 93% had no parental higher education background, 58% were listed as currently in receipt of free school meals and 57% came from a household where one or both parents were registered unemployed. Ninety-nine per cent of Horizons participants achieved 5+ A*-B grades in their GCSEs. Coupled with better outreach, we also heard that universities must effectively support students from lower socio-economic backgrounds throughout their degree. The University of Portsmouth partly attributed their TEF gold award to “the study and well-being support” they provide to their student body.
91.During oral evidence we raised concerns over the use of entry tariffs in university league tables. By including A Level grades in league tables universities are not given the incentive to admit students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have lower grades. Universities need stronger incentives to use contextualised admissions and practices such as foundation courses. Professor Husbands told us:
Entry tariff is used in league tables to universities. It is pernicious and it should not be there, because it measures very little about what the university itself is doing. I would like us to move away from that as a measure of institutional effectiveness at all.
93.Alongside contextualised admissions there has also been a significant increase in unconditional offers. This year 7.1% of offers made to 18-year olds were unconditional. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland 67,915 students received an unconditional offer, up from 2,985 in 2013. We agree with the Minister that such a steep rise undermines the credibility of the university system and is not in the best interests of students.
95.The gap in entry rates between the most and least disadvantaged students remains too wide when it should be closing fast. We support the use of contextualised admissions to bring more students from lower socio-economic backgrounds into higher education. We recognise that this practice should not be used in isolation, and that more effective outreach should be followed by support for disadvantaged students throughout their degree.
96.Institutions should state their contextualisation policies in their application information. By doing so disadvantaged students and schools in areas with lower rates of participation in higher education will have a better understanding of the entry requirements to different institutions.
97.We received a great deal of evidence on the dramatic decline in part-time and mature students and the effect it has had on the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education. We recognise that although the number of disadvantaged school leavers going into higher education has increased, the total number of English undergraduate entrants from low participation areas decreased by 15% between 2011/12 and 2015/16. This fall is due to the collapse in part-time study.
The market for part-time higher education in England is in crisis. That creates major economic and social disadvantages. The biggest cause of the fall in part-time study in England is government policy which has resulted in a broken market that now needs urgently to be fixed. To restore the market to health requires direct intervention by the UK Government. The need for that is immediate.
98.A report by the Sutton Trust, ‘The Lost Part-Timers’, found that the numbers of part-time undergraduate students dropped by 51% between 2010 and 2015. This drop was particularly severe at the Open University where part-time numbers dropped by 63% over this period. The Sutton Trust’s report attributed approximately 40% of the decline to the 2012 fee changes. It recognised other trends such as the ending of funding for most graduates taking a second degree and the impact of the recession but concluded that the 2012 reforms “significantly exacerbated these earlier trends”.
99.The Government has announced new maintenance loans for part-time students taking a degree level course from 2018/19. In oral evidence the Minister accepted that the numbers of part-time students had “gone down dramatically, and unacceptably so”. The Minister referred to the post-18 education and funding review which includes encouraging more flexible learning through part-time study in its terms of reference. The Chief Executive of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, agreed:
I think the review that has just been launched needs to have a really strong focus on flexible learning and on part-time, mature learning. If we are going to get a lifelong learning system and a policy and funding environment around that, it needs to support people to learn at all stages of their lives and in different ways—short courses, long courses, part-time, full-time and distance learning.
100.Professor Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education Policy at Birkbeck, University of London and Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at UCL Institute of Education, has stated that the newly introduced income-contingent loans for part-time students are not the answer and that the Government’s review must be “courageous” in moving away from a one-size fits all approach to a funding system which incentivises part-time learning. The Sutton Trust’s report, co-authored by Professor Callender, recommended that those students who are eligible for the new part-time maintenance loan should be given “the option of a tuition fee grant for the first two years of their course” in order to reduce debt aversion as a barrier to participation. After two years students could take out fee and maintenance loans.
101.We are deeply concerned by the fall in both part-time and mature learners, and the impact this has had on those from lower socio-economic groups going into higher education. We recognise that although the number of disadvantaged school leavers going into higher education has increased, the total number of English undergraduate entrants from low participation areas decreased by 15% between 2011/12 and 2015/16.
102.The recent decline in part-time and mature learners should be a major focus of the Government’s post-18 education and funding review. We support calls for the review to redesign the funding system for these learners. The review should develop a tailored approach which moves away from the one size fits all approach which has driven the dramatic decline in numbers since 2012.
103.We heard overwhelming evidence in favour of the reintroduction of maintenance grants, which were abolished in 2016. The Minister told us that maintenance grants would be included in the Government’s on-going review, alongside other elements of the student finance system. The Government published its equality analysis of the abolition of maintenance grants in November 2015. It concluded that the changes did not discriminate against students with protected characteristics. The Government’s analysis found that the move to loans might act as a deterrent to debt averse students:
It is possible that the prospect of increased debt will deter some lower income households from undertaking Higher Education, which the evidence suggests are on average more likely to be debt averse. Against this, the availability of greater funding might help to make it more affordable to those students with limited access to other means of funding living costs e.g. higher income parents. We do not know which of these effects will predominate. However, the improvement in participation rates amongst disadvantaged groups to past changes in student financing suggests that if there is any downward effect it is likely to be small, although there are limits to which this evidence is directly relevant to the current set of proposals (e.g. we cannot factor in the cumulative impact of debt).
104.Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that the raising of tuition fees in 2012 and the introduction of maintenance loans has led to students from the poorest backgrounds accruing debts over a three-year degree of £57,000. The IFS stated that although “cash in the pockets” of students has been protected, this cash is now almost entirely in the form of loans. This has left “English graduates having the highest student debts in the developed world.” The Sutton Trust has consistently called for maintenance grants to be reinstated. In its recent report ‘Fairer fees’ it stated that introducing a system of means-tested fees and reinstating maintenance grants would cut average student debt in half, and notably cut debt among the 40% poorest students by 75%. Dr Gavan Conlon told us that “the removal of maintenance grants a couple of years ago was disastrous”. Evidence from the University of Cambridge said:
The University considers that maintenance support plays a vital role in enabling disadvantaged students to obtain value for money in their degree. Students who cannot participate fully in their degree course (for example, if they have to undertake long hours of paid work) and/or who cannot afford to complete their studies, are not able to get the most out of their education.
105.The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recommended that the Government “reinstate the means-tested system of loans and grants that existed before the 2016 reforms”. Based on research by the IFS the Committee’s report stated:
Although the change would lead to £1.7 billion more public spending today, in the long-run grants increase public spending only by £400 million. This is because under the current system, the vast majority of students do not pay off their student loans fully over the 30 year term, so much of the outlay in loans will be written off.
106.Based on the overwhelming evidence we have heard during the inquiry, we recommend that the Government return to the pre-2016 system and reinstate the means-tested system of loans and maintenance grants.
98 HESI, ‘’, accessed October 2018
99 Sutton Trust () para 19
100 Rt Hon David Lammy MP, ’, accessed October 2018
103 Universities UK () para 53
104 “”, WonkHE, September 2018
107 The ‘two-grade offer’ refers to universities lowering their entry requirements by two grades.
109 University of East Anglia (); University College London (); University of Derby ()
110 University of Nottingham () paras 7–8
111 University College London () para 3.2
113 University of Portsmouth () para 16
115 “”, UCAS, July 2018
117 The Open University (); UNISON () para 12; London South Bank University () para 12; MillionPlus () para 26
118 Open University, , November 2017, p 3
124 DfE, , February 2018
126 ””, WonkHE, February 2018
128 University of Derby () para 6; Coventry University () para 1.9; Guild HE () para 18; NUS () para 29
130 BIS, , November 2015
131 Ibid, p 82
132 IFS, ‘Higher Education funding in England: past, present and options for the future’, accessed October 2018
136 University of Cambridge () para 19.1
137 House of Lords, Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education, Second Report of the Economic Affairs Committee, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 139, para 332
138 Ibid, para 330
Published: 5 November 2018