‘OFFA’s Topsy-Turvy World’

John Marenbon

This week Les Ebdon, the director of OFFA (the Office for Fair Access, which regulates how universities choose their undergraduates) has just published his annual report. It contains two pieces of disquieting information. In 2014-15 the proportion of students from disadvantaged families who dropped out of university was much higher than those from well-off backgrounds, and only 52% of black students achieved a first or 2:1, as compared to 76% of white students. These statistics are open to a variety of explanations.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be more worried about building up debt and so more likely to choose to give up early (though many of them receive special financial help). Some black students may not settle as well as white ones into university culture. Or perhaps, although conscious racial prejudice is rare in higher education, there is an unconscious prejudice, which consists in expecting less academically from black students, or of being reluctant to criticize their work, from the very fear of seeming prejudiced – with the result that black students may achieve less highly than they might have done.

Another explanation might also be given for these statistics. Maybe the government’s efforts to broaden access by pressuring universities to give special preference to candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds and underrepresented ethnic groups have gone too far, so that some young people who fall into these categories are encouraged, to their own detriment, to take university courses for which they are unsuited, and which they abandon, or finish with poor results, which will not help them towards employment and suggest a poor educational experience.

There is no sign, however, that such considerations have led Mr Ebdon to rethink his strategy. Far from it. He has from the beginning targeted the two top universities in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge, for his criticisms and interference, and never more than now. At an education conference, he remarked: ‘Do I think there’s fair access at Oxbridge? Well, obviously not.’ He went to explain: ‘If you ask me, “Should they be doing more?”, the answer is yes, obviously, because they have so few students from [the most disadvantaged groups], so few students on free school meals, so few students from different ethnic minorities.’ And to threaten: ‘So yes, they certainly should be doing more, and that’s my job, to make sure that they do do more.’

Oxford and Cambridge have responded. Both point out, fairly, that they make great efforts to detect potential in students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Oxford, however, goes on to answer, accepting OFFA’s own rules of the game and boasting that ‘for 2017 entry, disadvantaged candidates have, for the first time ever, been more successful in winning offers to Oxford than the UK average.’ Cambridge, to its great credit, challenges the very premises of Les Ebdon’s comments: ‘Our admissions decisions are based on academic considerations alone’, it says. ‘We aim to widen participation whilst maintaining high academic standards. The greatest barrier to participation at selective universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is low attainment at school.’

Cambridge is right, but it should go even further. Access to an academic institution is fair in so far as those most suited intellectually and academically are selected. If the Office of Fair Access were true to its name, it would be working to support this aim. Instead, it tries to undermine it. By imposing on universities proportions of candidates in various non-academically determined categories – from maintained schools, recipients of free school-meals etc. – they must take, OFFA deliberately brings it about that, to a greater or lesser extent, worse-suited candidates are given places instead of better-suited ones. Of course, university admissions officers must look for potential rather than achievement. But OFFA has in fact made it more difficult for them to do so, by insisting on far more rigid, formal and transparent system than used to be common for admissions at Oxford and Cambridge. Academics, using their trained judgement about ability within their special disciplines, used to be able to follow a hunch about a candidate’s promise, even when his or her paper qualifications were unimpressive; now such an untransparent behaviour, which often benefited the educationally underprivileged, is outlawed.

In its response, Cambridge bravely points to where the real problem lies: the schools. If the government is genuinely concerned to give those from disadvantaged backgrounds the full range of educational opportunities, it should turn its back on Les Ebdon’s topsy-turvy world, in which the top universities are to blame when they turn away undereducated students. It should look to the education it provides in the school, especially for those who are intellectually able but come from poorer families. In most of Europe, such young people would be able to enter academically rigorous state schools, designed especially for the best students. It is due to the same ideology of perverted fairness that underlies the operations of OFFA that such schools are rare in Britain, and that it looks increasingly unlikely that there will be more of them any time soon.

*Professor Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He is the author of Pagans and Philosophers: the Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (Princeton, 2015) and Medieval Philosophy: a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2016).