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Office for Students Access and participation resources and analysis

The OfS has published a raft of reports and data on access and participation in higher education in England:

  1. A sector summary report providing an analysis of the access and participation open data resources that have been published on the OfS access and participation data dashboard.  It examines how access, continuation and attainment have changed for the whole sector over the last five years, and on the change between 2018-19 and 2019-20, focusing on the gaps between full-time undergraduate student groups. See:
  2. An updated interactive data dashboard which allows users to explore and evaluate access and participation at specific universities and colleges. Comparing different student groups for each stage of a student’s journey through higher education may reveal gaps in access, continuation and attainment at both a provider and a sector level. See:
  3. Details of its key performance measures (KPMs) around access and participation and progress against them. See:
  4. An independent review, carried out by Nous Group, of the OfS regulatory reform to access and participation. It explores whether the changes have led to an increase in the ambition and positive change in provider behaviour necessary to boost equality of opportunity. See:
  5. The OfS response to the independent review. See:
  6. A commentary by Chris Millward, Director for Access and Participation. See:

Most of the bullet points below relate to the OfS Access and participation resources. Findings from the data: sector summary report. Where this is not the case, it is indicated in the text.


  • The proportion of 18-year-old white entrants to full-time HE was 15 percentage points lower than the proportion of white 18-year-olds in the UK population. All other ethnic groups were overrepresented when compared to the population.  Over the last five years, white students are the only group that were underrepresented across all years and the gap gradually increased over this period  (p12)
  • There has been a slight narrowing in the gap between the proportion of 18-year-old entrants to full-time HE from POLAR4 quintile 1 areas (the least represented) and the proportion of 18-year-olds in the UK living in such areas, over the last five years. For nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of providers, the proportion of 18-year-olds from the lowest participation areas within HE was lower than the proportion living in these areas in the population (p14)
  • Gaps in participation between the most and least advantaged students at higher tariff universities have decreased slightly. However, Chris Millward described these universities as having “some distance to travel in order to ensure equality of opportunity” (KPM 2 and commentary)
  • The proportion of 18-year-old entrants to HE in 2019-20 who are male was 7.1 percentage points lower than the proportion of 18-year-old men in the UK population. Conversely, women were overrepresented by the same percentage (p16)
  • An 8 percentage point gap is seen between continuation rates for young and mature students. Continuation rates between students with no disability reported and students with a disability reported vary. The largest gap was for students who reported a mental health condition; however this gap decreased slightly across the last five years, from 4.2 percentage points in 2014-15 to 3.2 percentage points in 2018-19. The pattern for students who reported having cognitive or learning difficulties was the opposite: their continuation rate was consistently higher than those with no disability reported. In 2019-20 the gap was 1.3 percentage points (p19)
  • The continuation rate for white students was higher than those for students in all other ethnic groups. For Asian students, the gap was minimal. The largest gap was for black students, increasing from 5.4 to 6.1 percentage points from 2014/15 to 2018/19. The continuation rate was lower for black students than for white students in 71.5 per cent of the 123 providers. In a small number it was over 20 percentage points (p20)
  • Disadvantaged students (IMD quintile 5) had a consistently lower continuation rates (7-8 percentage points) compared to advantaged students (IMD quintile 1) over the last five years (p22)
  • Attainment rates (the proportion gaining a first or upper second class degree) for young students and mature students both increased between 2018-19 and 2019-20. For young students it rose from 80.1 per cent in 2018-19 to 85.2 per cent in 2019-20 and for mature students it increased from 70.3 per cent in 2018-19 to 75.6 per cent in 2019-20 (p24)
  • Over the five-year time series the attainment gap between students with a reported disability and those without has more than halved, from 2.8 percentage points in 2015-16 to 1.3 percentage points in 2019-20 (p25)
  • The gap in attainment rate between white and black students existed at nearly every provider in 2019-20. In 99 per cent of the 97 providers in total, black students had a lower attainment rate than white students. For the majority of providers, the gap was between 10 and 20 percentage points and there were a number of providers where the gap was even larger. However, the gap has narrowed in the last five years from 24.7 to 18.3 percentage points (p27)
  • Attainment rate gaps between white students and those in the other ethnic groups all declined over the last five years. However, attainment rates for these ethnic groups all remained lower than for white students (p29)
  • Attainment rates were consistently lower for the most disadvantaged students (IMD quintile 5) compared to the least disadvantaged, although in each year the gap decreased very slightly. It stands at 15.2 in 2019/20 compared to 18.6 five years earlier (p30)
  • Attainment rates were lower for disadvantaged students at 99.1 per cent of providers in 2019-20. The average gap was between 12.5 and 15 percentage points and there were a number where the gap was even larger (p31)
  • The independent review concludes that: OfS access and participation reforms have accelerated shifting culture at the sector level; governing body engagement has been a driver for change; stretching and broad-ranging targets have focused minds; the five-year plans provided a framework for a more ambitious and strategic approach (p7, Nous review)
  • Stakeholders expressed some challenges around the resource implications of the new APPs and student engagement in the process. Some HEIs pointed out that their access and participation challenges and local priorities were not aligned to OfS’s KPMs (p7, Nous review)
  • Staff and representative body stakeholders consistently raised concerns regarding the OfS’s approach to negotiating and approving targets. In many cases, they characterised the approach as inflexible and overly challenging (p8, Nous review)
  • Concerns were also expressed that meeting ambitious and stretching access targets will create competition between providers for recruiting target students and undermine collaboration. There was criticism of the tone, consistency, frequency, and quality of the OfS’s communications (p8, Nous review)
  • Covid-19 was the highest item on the list of challenges indicated by stakeholders, with negative impacts cited in over half of the staff survey responses (p9, Nous review)

Implications for governance

This is the second year of the Office for Students’ new approach to HE institutions’ Access and Participation Plans (APPs), originally launched in late 2018 as the vehicle for achieving key performance measures on entry and continuation rates and degree outcomes. The plans are a regulatory mechanism to ensure HE providers support access, success and progression for underrepresented and disadvantaged students. As the OfS points out in its latest report, “the importance of this has become even greater during the pandemic”.

Access and participation has become a high priority area for university leadership and governance, a move noted in the Nous independent review of the OfS reforms. The report from Nous says that governing body engagement in the development and implementation of the plans has made a significant impact, leading to additional resources to ensure compliance with the provisions set out in the plan, as a condition of ongoing registration.

In its response to the review, the OfS welcomed the increased “scrutiny from governing bodies” and points governors to its effective practice topic briefings, which provides advice and examples of how governing bodies can have effective oversight of their institution’s APP.

The updated dashboard facility allows governors to look at how their institutions are faring against performance measures, while the OfS sector level analysis shows progress towards KPMs in a number of areas, such as increased access to HE for students from the most underrepresented neighbourhoods and rising participation rates among young people from BAME backgrounds.

However, it should be noted that in his commentary, Chris Millward highlights the narrowing but still high attainment gap between white and Black students, and linked to this, the very low proportion of black postgraduate research students. He also focuses on the low participation rate of white, free school meals British students, most of which live in ex-industrial towns and cities across the north and midlands, or in coastal towns.

Challenges expressed by stakeholders surveyed by the review that governors might want to consider included concerns around growing competition between providers for recruiting target students. In its response, OfS suggests institutions could look at recruiting mature students, rather than focussing on 18-year-olds as the only source of to achieve targets, and work with further education partners to facilitate different pathways into higher education. Both these suggestions dovetail with the government’s focus on skills and FE, an agenda that could impact significantly on higher education in various ways. 

Concerns were also raised in the review about a lack of clarity around the consequences for universities if commitments and target in the APPs are not met. In its response, the OfS says it makes no apologies for setting stretching targets. It adds that where it is concerned that a provider may not have taken all reasonable steps to comply with the provisions of its plan, it may request further information, and may consider further interventions - including the imposition of a specific ongoing condition of registration to ensure that reasonable steps are taken and sufficient progress made.

Governors will inevitably have concerns that the pandemic and the attendant lockdowns will impact negatively on their institutions’ ability to fulfil access and participation commitments. In his commentary, Chris Millward acknowledges that levels of demand, coupled with lost learning and changes to exams, will add complexity to admissions decisions this year. However, he makes the point that to deliver on access and participation, “universities will need to recognise the context in which grades have been achieved and the potential of students applying from a low-participation school or community”.

There is also information in the OfS response to the Nous review on what universities will be expected to do to demonstrate the pandemic’s effect on access and participation work. If a target or milestone has been missed and the commitments made in the plan relevant to that target not delivered or only partially delivered as a result of the pandemic, OfS will expect universities to have a “clear and robust rationale, and to have explored reasonable alternatives” and to consider in its explanation what progress had been made to deliver those commitments prior to the lockdown announced on 23 March 2020.

Looking to the future, the OfS says it wants to see evidence of more outreach to schools and colleges through the Uni Connect network. Later this month, it will publish the latest findings from an independent evaluation of the Uni Connect partnerships and a survey of the schools and colleges involved. The OfS also plans to add further characteristics to the data it collects on widening access and participation, including parental education, household income and experience of social care.

In April, the OfS will receive reports from providers and students on the delivery of access and participation plans and how they have been affected by the pandemic. It says it expects that more students could need financial support, including to access new modes of learning. There could be more focus on partnerships between further and higher education to meet local demand to study, including from adults who want to retrain. It adds that it will negotiate this individually with universities and colleges once it has received their reports, "but this must be a ‘something for something’ discussion, which maintains the current levels of ambition and credibility while tackling the new imperatives".

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