Universities agree ‘most ambitious’ access agreements yet

6 Sep 16

Universities in England have made the ‘most ambitious’ commitments yet to helping under-represented groups enter higher education in a range of new access agreements, the Office for Fair Access has claimed today.

The watchdog today published access agreements for 198 higher education institutions, which the OFFA predicts will invest £834m to improve fair access to higher education for under-represented groups in 2017-18.

Although this represents a 10.3% rise compared to 2016-17 in cash terms, much of the extra investment comes from the increased income that some universities will receive from charging higher tuition fees of up to £9,250 annually.

Professor Les Ebdon, director of fair access to higher education at OFFA, said he was satisfied by the outcome of negotiations on agreements this year.

He stated: “The government has set ambitious aims for fair access to higher education so I am very pleased to see universities and colleges rising to the challenge.”

In its report, the OFFA noted an increased emphasis on activity and support for students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and measures to address the under-representation of white males from economically disadvantaged areas.

Also, there has been an increase in the number of institutions setting targets to address unexplained attainment gaps, with 22.3% now having a target in this area, with a third of these targets being new for this year.

OFFA is an independent public body established under the Higher Education Act 2004 to regulate fair access to higher education in England. It promotes access to higher education for people from lower income backgrounds and other under-represented groups.

All English universities and colleges that wish to charge higher tuition fees must make plans to promote and sustain fair access, through ‘access agreements.’ These can take the form of outreach, for example, summer schools, mentoring, after-school tuition, and making links with schools and colleges in disadvantaged areas.

Access agreements also cover activities to improve retention and success, and financial support such as bursaries and scholarships. The plans must be agreed with the OFFA, which then monitors implementation and applies sanctions where agreements are not honoured. OFFA issues guidance to institutions based on government policy.

According to Ebdon, “OFFA’s robust negotiations ensured improved targets at 94 institutions, increased investment at 37 and refocused investment at 24 institutions”.

He added: “As a result, life-changing opportunities will be opened up to many more people from all backgrounds, up and down the country.”

Of the £834m that institutions are expected to invest through access agreements, £409m will be spent on financial support, for example bursaries, fee waivers and accommodation discounts. Also, £171m will be spent on pre-entry activities to raise attainment and aspirations, such as, outreach work in communities, homework clubs, summer schools.

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