The Sutton Trust warns today that the higher education access regulator must remain independent if it is to challenge universities robustly – and help secure David Cameron’s target of doubling the proportion of disadvantaged students.

In its formal response to the higher education green paper, Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, which proposes merging the role of the Office for Fair Access into a new regulator, the Office for Students, the Trust says: “We cautiously welcome the opportunities that the proposed new Office for Students may bring, and the proposed new powers for the Director of Fair Access, but if we are going to meet the Prime Minister’s ambitions, it will be absolutely vital that fair access issues are not diluted or crowded out by other priorities.

“We also fear that the merger of Offa into the Office for Students could lead to a regulator who lacks the independence to challenge universities robustly, particularly if those universities who dislike an access ruling can appeal to the head of the OfS. Therefore, the independence of the access regulator must be retained.”

The Director of Fair Access is a statutory role appointed directly by the Business Secretary and answerable to Parliament. The Trust believes that even if the post is linked for efficiency reasons to the new Office for Students, the director must:

  • still be appointed directly by the Secretary of State and should report directly to him/her and to Parliament;
  • have a single focus on keeping fair access issues high on the public agenda
  • have sufficient personal powers and staff leadership enshrined in legislation to be able to challenge institutions and hold them to account;
  • be someone seen as credible by the sector and who has an understanding both of institutional diversity and autonomy and of the challenges faced in improving fair access.

The Trust’s response to the green paper also considers the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), recognising the importance of rewarding good teaching at all universities and making sure that it is not seen as a second order issue for those institutions that are research intensive.

The Trust strongly supports proposals in the green paper to link good teaching with access. To enable this, it recommends that universities provide clear information on the teaching available to prospective students, including contact hours, tutor support, and study and research expectations. To support teachers and encourage disadvantaged students, universities should also be transparent about employment outcomes.

However the Sutton Trust warns that if the TEF is not linked to improving access, there is a danger that universities will cherry pick students if they fear that those needing extra support might hurt their TEF judgement. The response notes that the TEF has the potential to support the work of the access regulator and needs to be seen as a key part of widening participation programmes, as well as ensuring excellent teaching for all.

The Trust also argues in its response to the Green Paper that in addition to the existing widening participation targets, there should be a specific target focused on improving opportunities for less advantaged students at leading universities, where Offa says there is still a seven-fold gap between the richest and poorest fifth of students.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“With the access gap at our most selective institutions still unacceptably wide, we welcome the green paper’s commitment to improving higher education access. However if this is to be achieved, it is vital that the Director of Fair Access retains his independence and is able to hold poor performers to account.

“It is good to hear plans to improve the quality of teaching, retention and postgraduate employment prospects.  However, shifting grants to loans means the financial burden for poorer students will increase and they will be saddled with debts in excess of £50,000. Freezing the repayment threshold will only add to this.”

For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact: Hilary Cornwell or Conor Ryan at the Sutton Trust on 0207 802 1660.


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 160 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is the independent public body that regulates fair access to higher education in England. It was set up in 2004 to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for people from lower income and other under-represented backgrounds.
  3. The Prime Minister has set a target to double the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education from the level it was in 2009 to by 2020. This would mean raising the participation rate of disadvantaged young people from 13.6% in 2009, to 27.2% in 2020. It was 18.2% in 2014.

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