Cambridge faces challenges in balancing representation with maintaining entry standardsLouis Ashworth

The University of Cambridge’s official access agreement this year may include targets for the undergraduate intake of certain underrepresented ethnic groups and regions.

Cambridge has begun the process of negotiating its yearly agreement with the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), the public body which monitors and promotes fair access to higher education.

In a presentation to the Senior Tutors’ Committee, Jon Beard, the University’s Director of Undergraduate Recruitment, outlined the options under consideration for this year’s agreement with OFFA.

Noting that the colleges last year rejected a proposition of giving lowered offers to students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds, keeping the standard A*AA offer, Beard said “if a reduction of entry standards was not considered, OFFA would expect Cambridge to either stretch existing targets even further or to introduce additional targets.”

Professor Les Ebdon, director of OFFA, was reported to have blocked an attempt by Cambridge to cut its access goals last yearOFFA

Agreements with OFFA are often based around hard quotas, but can also include more loosely defined goals. There was some consternation over Cambridge’s agreement last year. OFFA’s director apparently personally rejected an attempt by the University to lower its targets for intake from areas of low participation from 13 per cent to 12.5 per cent.

Beard presented a number of options, with members of the committee expressing “particular support” for three: the development of a new target relating to admission of certain underrepresented BME groups, the consideration of a target related to intake by region, and rebranding of current access efforts by colleges.

The proposals noted “that whilst the overall [BME] representation data was positive, not all [BME] groups were equally well represented within those figures.”

Commenting on the proposals, CUSU President Amatey Doku said “whilst no specific targets were set, the committee agreed for new targets to be explored and brought back to the committee for later consideration.”

He added that he had contacted Beard to “reiterate the need for targets to be included” in an agreement.

Graph Louis Ashworth

The University already targets ethnic minority students through its geodemographic intake goals, which aim at areas where there are already often several indicators of disadvantage to access. However, it has never recently taken on a target aimed at particular ethnic minority groups.

Varsity asked the University to comment on which ethnic groups might be focused upon, and what form the targets might take. A Cambridge spokesperson did not give details, saying: “Our proposals are a work in progress. We will announce further details once an agreement has been made with OFFA later this year.”

Analysis of current student statistics, however, suggests that black students may be the ethnic group most likely to be targeted.

In its student statistics for 2015/16, the University had only 119 UK undergraduates who identify as black, excluding mixed, out of total of 9,342 – just over one per cent.

The statistics offer a striking contrast to the nationwide picture. Out of 1,212,055 UK domiciled students who were studying in Britain in 2015/16, seven per cent were black – proportionately far higher than at Cambridge.

Cambridge’s proportion of white undergraduate students is higher than average. 79 per cent of UK-domiciled Cambridge undergraduates are white, compared to 73 per cent of students across the UK. A difference in ethnic composition also lies within the category of BME students. Chinese students are comparatively overrepresented: though just one per cent of UK-domiciled undergraduates across the country are Chinese, they make up almost 3 per cent of British Cambridge undergraduates.

The University faces difficulty in increasing representation of black students while also maintaining its demanding entry standards. Limited data available from UCAS shows a grade disparity among 18 year olds, the biggest group accepted into universities each year.

The latest UCAS statistics show that, out of 18 year olds who were accepted into university last summer, excluding Scotland, 5.1 per cent of black students achieved A*AA or better, compared to an average of over 14 per cent from other ethnic groups. Overall, only one per cent of accepted students getting A*AA or above were black.

This attainment gap can be seen across recent years. In 2015, Cambridge took in just over one in 10 of the 290 UK black students who got A*AA or above.

In its agreement with OFFA last year, Cambridge reported that “the primary factor affecting admission by under-represented and disadvantaged groups to highly selective institutions such as Cambridge is prior attainment.”

Addressing the challenges posed by the attainment gap, Professor Les Ebdon, the director of OFFA, told Varsity: “Recent research indicates that young people from some BME groups are significantly less likely to attend those universities with the highest entry requirements than other ethnic groups. I expect these universities to analyse their own data and set out how they will address any differences they identify. There are also worrying gaps for BME students at other stages of the student lifecycle, particularly in regards to attainment and progression to graduate employment, so it is vital that universities also consider how best to support BME students to achieve their full potential once they are on course.”

A University spokesperson said that rates of application, acceptance and admission for black students are currently rising. They told Varsity: “We currently spend £5m a year on access measures leading to 190,000 interactions with pupils and teachers across the UK. This includes focused work with BME students; children in care; students eligible for free school meals and from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds; mature learners; and students in schools and colleges which have not historically sent students to Cambridge.

“We will continue to work hard with schools, charities, parents and students to raise aspirations and attainment,” they said.

The new access agreement may include expanded targets for regional intake. At present, colleges are assigned geographical areas in which they carry out access work, something which Beard suggested may be affected as part of a more centralised approach. Analysis of last year’s admissions statistics showed that Cambridge’s undergraduate intake was dominated by students from the South East and London.

Negotiations with OFFA typically commence in February or March, with a result expected later in the year. If the University were unable to reach an agreement, its maximum undergraduate fee would be pegged at £6,125 a year – resulting in a loss of nearly £31m a year under current rates.

Correction 24/03/2017: An earlier version of this article compared ethnic data for Cambridge’s whole undergraduate body against national statistics for only UK-domiciled students. This has been corrected