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12th September 2012

Universities could face ‘nuclear’ penalties for failing disadvantaged students

The new head of OFFA has promised to encourage wider participation at UK universities

The most selective universities could face “nuclear” penalties for failing to meet admissions targets for disadvantaged students.

Professor Les Ebdon, the new director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa), is promising to use his tenure to encourage wider participation in universities.

Mr Ebdon told MPs that he has no fear of using penalties if universities repeatedly fail to meet their targets. These penalties include fines of up to £500,000 as well as banning an institution from charging tuition fees of over £6,000 a year.

Julian Skyrme, head of widening participation at the University of Manchester, supported Ebdon’s goal, highlighting the University’s “strong track record” and saying it was “starting at a high place and we set ourselves targets to continue to improve”.

He said that the University flags up disadvantaged backgrounds for admissions tutors and that this is taken into account when making offers.

The University of Manchester currently takes the highest number of students from “low-participation” areas in the Russell Group, and the second highest proportion of 8.4% compared to the average 5.8%.

Research suggests that the richest 20% of young people are seven times more likely to reach the most selective universities than the poorest 40%.

Professor Ebdon noted that “a number of universities have conducted research and have shown that students admitted with lower grades from poorly performing schools then go on to outperform those with slightly better grades from highly performing schools”.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Dr Geoff Parks, Cambridge’s outgoing admissions director, warned that lowering grades for disadvantaged students would be a “really, really cruel experiment” since they may not be able to cope.

The University of Manchester’s Manchester Access Programme does lower grades for talented students from local disadvantaged backgrounds, but does not do the same on a wider scale.

Julian Skyrme explains that research conducted by each university reaches different conclusions, and he suggests a national evidence base of the research conducted by them, believing that a “common methodology” would improve efforts to widen participation.

He also agrees with previous concerns by Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, who warned that “emphasis on targets” could harm efforts to widen participation.

He says that “targets are important benchmarks”, but there are “a battery of indicators” of disadvantaged students. He points to differences in family backgrounds of students as the biggest issue.

Professor Ebdon has been facing political backlash since before his appointment. Conservative MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee voted against his appointment in February but were later overruled by BIS ministers.

One of these committee members, Brian Binley MP, accused Professor Ebdon of “salivating” over the prospect of making use of the penalties available to him.

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