England's top universities need to do more to improve access for disadvantaged young people or they could face sanctions – including seeing their tuition fees cut, a watchdog has warned.
While there is "genuine ambition" to ensure that all would-be undergraduates have a fair chance of gaining a university place, and getting a degree, there are still gaps in "equality of opportunity", particularly in the nation's most selective institutions, according to the Office for Students (OfS).
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The warning was issued as access agreements for 41 universities – typically those with high entry requirements and those with early application deadlines, such as institutions with medical schools – were published.
Getting disadvantaged pupils into university
Access agreements set out how an institution intends to tackle issues such recruitment of disadvantaged students, drop-out rates and gaps in degree achievement between different groups.
Any university or college wanting to charge more than around £6,000 a year in fees – up to the maximum of £9,250 – must have an agreement approved by the OfS.
In 2017-18, English institutions recruited twice as many students from the most advantaged backgrounds, compared with the most disadvantaged, the regulator said.
But among the most selective universities, this ratio increases to five times as many advantaged students compared with disadvantaged.
Chris Millward, the OfS' director for fair access and participation, said he believes there has been a "step change" and that there is "much more rigour in the work that universities are doing".
But he added: "Some universities in particular have a very long way to go on access. We are working with them to look at what they need to do within this period."
The OfS has a range of powers it can use if institutions do not deliver on their access agreements, one of which is refusing to approve or withdrawing approval of their plan.
If the regulator does not approve an agreement, Mr Millward said, "a university cannot charge the highest fees, which is an incredibly important part of their resources".
Today's access agreements, which cover a five-year period from 2020-21 to 2024-25, show that universities have made a range of commitments to improve access and achievement.
For example, the University of Oxford – which recruited 15 times as many students from the most advantaged groups compared with the most disadvantaged in 2017-18 – is aiming to reduce this to eight times as many advantaged as disadvantaged by 2024-25.
The University of Cambridge plans to reduce its ratio of advantaged to disadvantaged students from 14 to one in 2017-18 to just under seven to one by 2024-25.
King's College London and Aston University both have commitments in their agreements to address the gap in degree attainment between black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students and white students.
A total of 31 universities whose access agreements have been published today will be subject to "enhanced monitoring", which means that they will have to report on the progress they are making towards their targets, and make changes where requested by the regulator.
If there is a lack of progress, the OfS can intervene, including withdrawing approval for the agreement.
The names of the 31 universities have not been published.
Mr Millward said: "These new plans prove that, following a sustained challenge from the OfS, there is genuine ambition and drive among universities to address equality of opportunity.
"I am pleased they are rising to the challenge, but this is just the start. Now they must turn these ambitions into results. This is not just about meeting short-term targets, but the first steps in a generational shift towards a fairer higher education system and a fairer society.
"We are still a long way from equality of opportunity in our universities, and gaps remain particularly wide at the most selective universities.
"Through their plans, we expect universities and colleges to address these issues at all parts of the student lifecycle – including admissions, attainment and successful progression beyond higher education.
"We will be scrutinising the progress universities make and will intervene where progress is not sufficient."
Universities have increasingly been taking action to improve access in recent years.
For example, this summer, for the first time, Cambridge University admitted 67 students from disadvantaged backgrounds through "adjustment".
This is a part of the annual clearing process that allows students who score top grades, or better grades than they expected, another chance at getting a place on their first choice course, if they were previously turned down, or to "trade-up" to another course or university.
The accepted students had previously applied to the prestigious institution and been turned down.
Sarah Stevens, director of policy (higher education) at the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, said: "These ambitious plans are part of the ongoing efforts by Russell Group universities to attract and support disadvantaged and underrepresented students.
"They demonstrate our universities' deep commitment to playing their part, along with schools, government and others, in tackling inequality across the education system."
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: "I am clear to universities that this is not just about widening access but also helping to tackle drop-out rates and improving attainment and progression from higher education.
"I will be watching carefully to see how these plans are now delivered and I will support the OfS in any action it takes if universities are not delivering against their commitments."