Top universities will have to admit fewer middle class students if they are to meet vital diversity quotas, according to higher education regulator Office for Students (OfS)

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The university watchdog has advised that some of the UK’s top institutions must ‘considerably reduce’ the intake of students from well-off backgrounds.

Russell Group universities still account for the largest gap between wealthy and poorer students, which they will have to ‘eliminate’ within 20 years if they are to meet targets relating to diversity, says the regulator.

In order to help UK universities meet these objectives, the Office for Students (OFS) has offered two solutions.

While one approach would see Russell Group universities double their annual intake of students, the alternative strategy proposes to significantly reduce the number of admissions of students from wealthier backgrounds.

However, statistics from the Department for Education indicate that it is unlikely that there will be a significant increase in students applying to universities in forthcoming years.

OfS says that it could prove difficult to boost student numbers in the next few years, meaning that top universities face the alternative of lowering the amount of students from middle class and well-off backgrounds at their institutions.

Professor Claire Callender, higher education policy expert at University College London’s Institute of Education, commented on the legal problems the move could face, saying: ‘If the only option is to have some form of positive discrimination, I am not clear whether it would be permitted under the law.’

Admitting that ‘targets are very useful and certainly it is important that universities do everything they can to widen the participation of underrepresented groups,’ Professor Callender warned of the ‘quite considerable resistance’ that the policy could face from not just the institutions but parents and students.

Conversely, Sutton Trust founder, Sir Peter Lampl defended the Office for Student’s plan to limit the number of well-off students in higher education, saying that it could evoke positive change. ‘Despite efforts and some progress in the past two decades, the gap remains wide’, he said.

The founder of the Sutton Trust, a charity focused on improving social mobility, commended the implementation of a ‘contextual admissions’ strategy, by which students from less affluent backgrounds receive university offers based on lower A-Level predictions than fellow, wealthier pupils.

Sir Peter Lampl advocated the new approach from the OfS: ‘Doing this could radically shift the balance and increase the numbers of the poorest students studying at the most selective universities.’

A series of documents containing the targets were revealed at a board meeting that focused on boosting participation rates.

So far these documents have only revealed diversity targets for Russell Group universities and those with high entry requirements.

The regulator says it will set diversity quotas across the higher education sector once Theresa May’s education review is finalised.

A post-18 education review that began in 2017 is currently being carried out, after the Prime Minister opened an investigation into the sector.

The move came after Jeremy Corbyn won over young voters by promising to abolish tuition fees during the last general election.

The ongoing inquiry led by Philip Augar is set to conclude later this year, with the results to be examined by the Department for Education.