12 November 2004
The new university access regulator Sir Martin Harris has claimed that top-up tuition fees could generate up to £200m a year to fund bursaries for poorer students.
Harris, who heads the Office for Fair Access, said the figure could be reached if colleges devoted 20% of their additional income to providing support to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The actual proportion of the extra income spent on financial assistance will be determined by individual bodies. But Harris made his expectations clear in guidance launched on November 8.
'We expect that institutions whose records suggest they have furthest to go in attracting a wider range of applications, may wish to invest more than others,' it said.
These guidelines will shape the 'access agreements' that colleges will have to sign in return for permission to charge higher fees. The agreements will outline the outreach activities and bursary programmes that universities charging higher fees will set up in an effort to broaden the social mix of their students.
Harris said he intended to adopt a 'light touch' approach to his role and pledged not to impose quotas. 'Fair access is not about interfering with admissions, lowering standards, setting arbitrary targets or standing in the way of the valuable work that is already being done by institutions,' he said.
Universities signing access agreements will, from 2006, be allowed to raise their fees from the current £1,200 per year up to a maximum of £3,000. Government help for the poorest students will total £2,700 annually, leaving a £300 gap.
The higher education sector broadly welcomed the guidance. Professor Ivor Crewe, president of representative body Universities UK, said it was vital that Offa did not take a 'mechanistic' approach to access agreements.
'We firmly believe the efforts of each institution should be judged on their own merits,' he added.
Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Lecturers union, said: 'We are pleased that Offa has kept its procedures fairly simple and is not going to burden hard-pressed university staff with complex procedures and mountains of paperwork.'