Can it be choice and not chance?

Tim O’Connor, Audit Partner, reflects on the Office for Students’ latest attempt to drive the equality of opportunity in the higher education sector.

12 December 2022 - Tim O'Connor

In my twenty years auditing HE providers there has always been a key focus by the regulators on widening participation. The desire to attract talented people from underrepresented groups, no matter what their social or economic background, is a positive one but it has proved to be a tough nut to crack. 


The current Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, John Blake, is trying to find new ways to make progress in this area, with the consultation on his proposals closing on 10 November. 


One of his key proposals is to introduce an Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, which would be regularly updated and would need the engagement of the whole sector. 

 As an auditor, I love a risk register, but my concern with this approach is that the sector is a broad and diverse one. Such a critical and hard to resolve area absolutely needs engagement across the providers, so it must therefore be relevant and even more importantly beneficial to all providers.  

 One of the key issues, selective universities having little engagement with disadvantaged students, is a problem for those institutions and not the wider sector. The lack of non-traditional routes into Higher Education is a charge that cannot be levied against the post-92 Universities, who have innovated by necessity.      

 The issue of different attainment across different schools and different pupils within them should be a concern relevant to all. However, it seems a much larger problem for which the HE sector can play a small part, but there is surely much greater action needed around policy and funding to really start changing outcomes. Greater engagement and coordinated working between schools and universities is to be encouraged and can only be beneficial, but will this really fix some of the stark attainment gaps? 

 It also ignores the work that many universities are already carrying out in trying to access students who traditionally would not have considered university. Perhaps ensuring some of this best practice is not just shared but also adopted across the sector would also be a catalyst for positive change.  

 The declared intention is for the Equality of Opportunity risk register to inform providers’ objectives in setting and reviewing their Access and Participation Plans. This is to be welcomed as a group effort is required, but these providers are also competitors, vying for precious student numbers. Driving change into the Universities that have historically not struggled to recruit will be much more difficult and I do not see collegial pressure really making a significant difference.  

 Also coming from John Blake’s office has been a change in emphasis on how to monitor providers’ access and participation plans. He wants a clear focus on evaluation (evaluation, evaluation as everything considered important has to be said three times now) and judging providers on outcomes. This seems like an eminently sensible approach as worrying about what is being spent should never have been the focus. Value for money has never been only about cost and the value is always in the lives that have been improved.  

 Alongside working on the Equality of Opportunity there are also continuing concerns around quality and ensuring that widening participation is not just about recruitment numbers. A key metric of quality being adopted by OfS is around, continuation, completion, and employability. So beyond just attracting underrepresented students to the provider, it is important that they complete their course and that this changes their life options through further study or improved employment opportunities. These students should not be being lured to university by a lower quality product, they should receive a return on their investment through a quality degree or degree apprenticeship that enables them through the next stage of their lives. 

 I cannot disagree with this as an intention, and it must be the goal that all providers are working towards. I worry that this is a utopian vision that ignores the wide disparity of opportunity for young people in the state school system and I would again question how much of an impact Higher Education providers can really have in the wider educational arena.  

 Quality and the value obtained from the tuition fees paid should not be dumbed down, but there must be an acknowledgement of value added through the higher education process. This value added has the potential to be transformational, begin to change the access opportunities across underrepresented groups and let talent develop. 

 We will see what 2023 brings and how the evolution of the Access and Participation Plans for 2024-25 is impacted by this approach. I hope that for the key items on the equality of opportunity risk register that the OfS find a sledgehammer to finally crack this difficult to open nut. 

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