OFFA sets out what universities need to do to charge fees of more than £6,000

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has published new guidance setting out its expectations of what universities will need to do if they wish to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 a year.

Universities and colleges will use the guidance to draw up access agreements for 2012-13. Access agreements detail the fees that institutions intend to charge and the measures (such as outreach and financial support) they will put in place to improve access and student retention at their institution. From 2012-13, all institutions that want to charge more than the new basic fee of £6,000 must have an access agreement approved by OFFA on an annual basis.

Director of Fair Access, Sir Martin Harris, described the new guidance as demanding but also flexible enough to allow institutions to put in place the measures most likely to work at their particular institution.

"We want all institutions to focus more on outcomes. It is true that much progress has already been made in widening participation to the sector as a whole - over the last five years alone the chances of a young person from the lowest participation neighbourhood going to university has increased by 30 per cent. But progress in improving access to the most selective universities has remained virtually flat.

"We will have the highest expectations of institutions who have the furthest to go in achieving a representative student body and who want to charge fees towards the top end."

In addition to a greater focus on outcomes, the new guidance also asks institutions to:

  • increase their focus and expenditure on long-term targeted outreach (including collaborative work) with a proven success record in raising aspirations and attainment among potential applicants from under-represented groups. This may mean that institutions choose to move some money out of financial support such as bursaries which statistical analysis shows have had no impact on students' university choices. However, the guidance asks institutions to monitor the impact of any reductions as financial support may become more important in the new landscape
  • target financial support such as bursaries and fee waivers more tightly at the most disadvantaged
  • participate in the new National Scholarship Programme (NSP), matching the funds from Government
  • set themselves stretching targets Universities set their own targets and milestones. These may be based around the HESA widening participation performance indicators or other statistical measures. OFFA will assess targets and milestones to ensure they are sufficiently rigorous including targets relating to their student intake and their outreach activities. Universities that already have a representative student body are asked to set themselves targets around their retention performance
  • take account of their access record and the fees they wish to charge when deciding how much to spend on access measures. The guidance sets out broad expectations for how much institutions should spend but places more emphasis on the outcomes of an institution's investment rather than the precise amount of money it is spending. Institutions with the furthest to go in achieving a representative student body and who wish to charge the highest fees will be expected to spend the most We will expect such institutions to spend around £900 per fee on access.

Looking ahead, Sir Martin emphasised that 2012-13 would be a transitional year and that the guidance on drawing up an access agreement would be amended for future years as evidence emerged of the impact of the new student finance arrangements.

"We are now entering uncharted territory and none of us can predict exactly how the new higher fees will affect student behaviour. There is a real risk that disadvantaged students in particular will start to feel they cannot afford to go to university. It is therefore vital that the sector gets across the message that tuition fees are not payable upfront and that students only start repaying fee and maintenance loans once they are earning more than £21,000."

Universities and colleges now have until Tuesday 19 April 2011 to submit their 2012-13 access agreements. OFFA will then assess their agreements and announce all agreements that have been approved by 11 July 2011.

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