According to new proposals by the Office for Students (OfS), universities may be fined or de-registered if they fail to improve diversity by admitting more financially disadvantaged, disabled, or black and minority ethnic (BME) students.
The OfS is a watchdog established in January this year to regulate universities and protect students’ interests. To increase the intake of 18-year-olds from poor backgrounds, they will be setting national targets that all universities must meet.
These targets include working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods to improve pupils’ results, reducing the dropout rate of disadvantaged students, and addressing differences in achievement between students of different ethnicities and backgrounds, and those with disabilities.
The recruitment, progress, and post-graduation work prospects of these students will be closely monitored. The OfS recommended that universities should focus on the 20% of areas with the lowest levels of participation, as opposed to the lowest 40%.
Universities which are less likely to meet the aforementioned targets and have wide gaps in student diversity will be subjected to “tougher” regulations. This will also apply to courses with higher grade requirements, “often leading to better jobs”.
Every three years, these institutions will be required to produce plans explaining what they will change, how the changes will be achieved, and what investment is needed.
Other universities will have to publish plans every five years, beginning in 2020. Chris Millward, OfS director for fair access and participation, said: “Everyone with the talent to succeed in higher education should have equal opportunity to do so, but that’s not currently the case.
“You are more than twice as likely to go to university if you grow up in a more advantaged neighbourhood, and five times as likely to attend one of the most selective universities. So many talented people are being failed by a system that should be a gateway to a rewarding life. This is simply not acceptable.”
You are more than twice as likely to go to university if you grow up in a more advantaged neighbourhood, and five times as likely to attend one of the most selective universities
– Chris Millward, OfS director
He clarified that while universities are “committed to improving access”, and have spent up to £800 million on projects to increase diversity, “they don’t understand enough about whether it’s working”.
Russell Group Chief Executive Dr Tim Bradshaw commented: “There is a great deal of activity to improve access taking place across the sector but what we need now is a clear overview of which interventions make the biggest difference.”
He added that the institutions have been working with the OfS, and stated: “We need to be clearer on what works, and what doesn’t, if we are to shift the dial.”
Hollie Burton, a Health Research student in her final year at the University of Warwick, supported the proposal, and said: “I think this is great and is fundamental for encouraging social mobility and giving minority students opportunities that they may otherwise miss out on due to social factors like not attending private schools.”
An incoming first-year Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics (MORSE) student suggested: “It would be better to hide not just ethnicity but also names from UCAS to prevent any sort of discrimination.
“Positive discrimination is also discrimination in my opinion and I wouldn’t like people to assume I got into a certain university just due to my race or gender rather than my abilities.”
Likewise, Dafni Paraschi, an incoming Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) student beginning her first year, said: “Universities should not be obliged to enrol students who will increase diversity. I am certain that every minority student who has entered university will agree that they succeeded because of merit.
I think this is great and is fundamental for encouraging social mobility and giving minority students opportunities that they may otherwise miss out on
– Hollie Burton
“Minority students might be dismissed by people claiming that they obtained their positions through preferential treatment; demeaning their achievement.
“Thus, they should be enrolled because society ought to comprehend that purposefully rejecting an applicant because of the colour of their skin or simply because of where and under what circumstances they were born is scientifically illogical and unacceptable.”
August Liljenberg, who is soon to begin his first year as a PPE student at Warwick, commented: “Indeed, there is a problem with firsts being under-represented for people with BME backgrounds, but the issue should be addressed at a far earlier stage than university.”
Guy Jack, a Theatre and Performance student going into his third year, agreed: “Reforming the end grade at degree level may be cheaper and make for more attractive self-advertising for universities and the government, but the idea that the level of deep and meaningful change needed across the first 12 years of education could be achieved in just three years of university seems patently dishonest.”
A second-year History student said: “Are universities trying to provide great education for all, or are they focused on trying to correct the racial inequality of the upper echelons of our society by giving advantage to minority students based on their race?
“Of course, universities do need to work more towards creating an image of academia where BME students aren’t made to feel like outsiders – they need to be better represented. However, the main issue with attainment of degrees is down to a ludicrous student finance system.”
He continued: “Financial help for all socioeconomically challenged students is the key to higher attainment. This should not be based on race, but on need.”