Cambridge was rebuked after attempting to cut participation targetsLouis Ashworth

Cambridge’s proposed reduction in access targets has been rejected by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) according to internal documents.

In order to charge tuition fees, the University is required to make an ‘access agreement’ with OFFA, an independent regulator, every year.

For this year’s agreement, Cambridge was hoping to reduce its targets for intake from the lowest Participation of Local Areas (POLAR), after data from the Cambridge Admissions Office (CAO) suggested that the previous target had been set too high.

Presenting OFFA’s response to Cambridge’s draft proposal, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Professor Graham Virgo, told the University Council that “one comment indicated that the Director of Offa had rejected the University’s POLAR target.”

The draft proposal – which lowered the target from 13 per cent to 12.5 per cent – passed through the University Council on the 18th April. A University spokesperson said: “We have already agreed access targets with Offa which reflect our commitment to widening participation.”

This year’s access agreements have not been released so far, as the government has yet to finalise the list of universities included in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – those education providers eligible to increase their fees up to the maximum tuition fee cap this year.

However, these latest documents indicate that Cambridge’s deal will not include a reduction in access targets.

This chimes with comments made by the director of OFFA, Professor Les Ebdon. He refused to comment on particular negotiations, but stressed: “I was clear that I wanted to see [institutions] being ambitious with their targets, and I did not expect to see the ambition of their targets plateau.”

Les Ebdon, director of OFFAOFFA

Since his appointment, Professor Ebdon has not always been on the same page as the CAO. In his first week in the role, Ebdon said that Sixth Formers from poorer backgrounds should be given preferential offers where the use of such a practice is “based on sound research”. Dr Geoff Parks, who led the CAO at the time, called the idea “a really, really cruel experiment.”

Cambridge has been criticised lately for its supposedly weak record on access, and for recent policy changes which some say will exacerbate the problem. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the proportion of Cambridge students from poor backgrounds has fallen over the past decade from 12.4 per cent to 10.2 per cent.

At the same meeting where targets were slashed, a decision was also taken to once again reject preferential offers for students from poor backgrounds.

However, the University Council said that Cambridge would “maintain its commitment to the provision of bursaries as a means of widening participation”.

Earlier this year, Cambridge came under fire from social mobility tsar Alan Milburn, who said that the University’s intention to re-introduce entrance exams across all subjects had “the potential to raise a further barrier to equal access” since “bright students from less advantaged backgrounds tend to miss out on the intensive tutoring their better-off peers receive”.