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Revisions to access agreements for 2014-15 following changes to the National Scholarship Programme

In brief

  • Following the Government’s announcement of changes to the National Scholarship Programme (NSP) for 2014-15, all institutions with access agreements must confirm the financial support arrangements in their access agreements with OFFA by midday on 16 December 2013, using the HEFCE extranet.
  • Provided that any changes you make are in line with this guidance note, you do not need to wait for formal OFFA approval of any revisions to your financial support levels in advance of advertising them; you can do this afterwards. All revisions to financial support levels must be published on your website and elsewhere by midday on 16 December 2013 at the latest, making clear that these are subject to OFFA approval.
  • This note sets out our guidance on the process we will follow, the changes we will consider should you wish to revise your agreement, and the timings, which are necessarily extremely tight.
  • Please contact your OFFA policy adviser at an early stage if you wish to discuss your approach (www.offa.org.uk/contact-us/institutional-contact-list).

Background

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has announced that the Government allocation for the NSP will be reduced from £150 million to £50 million for 2014-15. Institutions will be expected to maintain the total level of matched funding originally planned to support the programme and which you set out in your 2014-15 access agreements and NSP intentions templates.

 Following this announcement, HEFCE has now issued a circular letter (32/2013, available at www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs) which includes your revised provisional Government allocation and a new minimum number of awards which must be delivered, and asks you to complete and return an NSP intentions template by midday on 16 December.

 Although the Government allocation has reduced, the rules of the programme remain largely the same (as set out in HEFCE publication 2013/02). This is with two important exceptions: 

  1. The minimum award has changed from £3,000 to £2,000 (pro rata for part-time students). This means that, despite the reduction in the Government allocation, a larger number of students can be supported through the programme than if the minimum award were retained at £3,000.
  2. There is now no limit to the amount of funding which can be awarded as cash (formerly £1,000 pro rata).

Our approach

We would not normally expect you to make in-year changes once the application cycle is underway. However, given the changes announced by the Government to the NSP for 2014-15, and the subsequent impact on your access agreement, we feel it would be unreasonable to require all institutions to make up the reduction in Government NSP funding through your own funds. Therefore we are allowing you a limited opportunity to revise the financial support package set out in your agreement so that you can continue to support students as you wish to. Whether you choose to revise your package is, of course, a matter for your particular institution to decide.

What changes will OFFA approve?

It is for you to decide how you respond to the Government’s changes to the NSP. However, you should restrict changes to those that allow you to respond to the changes in Government policy, in a way that meets your institution’s aims to widen participation. A further consideration for you, and for OFFA, will be how to minimise the impact of these changes on individual students and to treat applicants fairly. For example, many potential students will already have applied for entry in 2014-15, and so will be hoping to receive an NSP award.  

Wherever possible, therefore, our expectation is that you will do one of the following:

  • maintain your current number of NSP awards as originally planned and reduce the value of individual awards (subject to the revised minimum award of £2,000) 
  • reduce the number of NSP places you are offering. In some cases, you may wish to keep the value of your NSP awards as originally planned but change your eligibility criteria so you give awards to fewer students. If you choose this option, you will need to be mindful that many applicants will already have applied or be aware of your current NSP offer and therefore have an expectation of the likelihood of receiving an award 
  • re-allocate some of your broader financial support towards the NSP. If you are keen to minimise reductions in the value of your NSP awards and still give the same number of awards, you may want to rebalance the financial support in your access agreement more generally, moving money out of bursaries for better-off students so that you can better support those in your NSP priority groups. Please note that you must restrict changes to those that allow you to respond to the changes in government policy and support the coherence of your overall package; you may not make broader changes. If you were allocated student places by HEFCE through the core and margin process, you will also need to consider the implications of this for your average fee level. Please contact your OFFA policy adviser at an early stage if you are considering this option 
  • maintain your current access agreement, with your institution covering the reduction in Government NSP funding.

In addition:

  • We will expect you to maintain the level of NSP matched funding originally planned and set out in your 2014-15 access agreements and NSP intentions templates.
  • We do not expect to see a reduction in your overall access agreement investment (that is, excluding the Government NSP allocation) compared to the forecasts you submitted to OFFA earlier in 2013.
  • We will expect you to honour your existing commitments to continuing undergraduate students who entered in 2013-14 or before.
  • We will only allow changes to enable you to respond to the change in government policy relating to financial support. Therefore we are not able to consider changes to your activity/spend on outreach and student success, or changes/updates to your access agreement more generally.
  • Similarly, we do not expect you to revisit the milestones or targets in your access agreement.
  • In revising your access agreement in-year, you should seek to minimise any potential unfairness to applicants. When you developed your access agreement in spring 2013, we asked you to tell us how you were involving students in the design, implementation and monitoring of your access agreement, and how you were taking equalities issues into account. You will therefore wish to consider how you can minimise any adverse effects on particular groups of students as a result of any new changes you make to your financial support.
  • You will also wish to consider the impact of any changes on your average fee level, particularly if you were allocated student places by HEFCE through the core and margin process. Lifting the limit on cash and revisiting your package of financial support may impact on the average fee level for the 2014-15 entry cohort (but not earlier entry cohorts), meaning institutions may no longer be in compliance with the core and margin conditions. HEFCE will advise individual institutions of their assessment of the impact of these changes and issue further guidance on the fee monitoring process in due course. For further details on HEFCE’s approach, see paragraphs 17-18 of HEFCE Circular Letter 32/2013 at www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs.
  • Please contact your OFFA policy adviser at an early stage if you wish to discuss your approach (www.offa.org.uk/contact-us/institutional-contact-list).

Changes need to be advertised in time to allow applicants an opportunity to change their choices

In considering in-year revisions in these exceptional circumstances, we attach great importance to the need to give applicants sufficient time prior to the UCAS deadline of 15 January 2014 to review their application choices, in the light of any revisions to financial support packages, and make changes where they decide these are material to their decisions.

All revisions to financial support levels must therefore be published on your website and elsewhere by midday on 16 December 2013 at the latest, making clear that these are subject to OFFA approval. Where these revisions have been advertised later than 16 December, we are likely to refuse you permission to change your 2014-15 access agreement. Therefore, if you wish to submit a revised agreement, it is important that you do so as soon as possible, and by midday on 16 December 2013 at the latest.

You should be mindful that where you have courses with 15 October deadlines, these applicants will not be able to apply elsewhere to other courses with a 15 October deadline without the risk that their application may not be considered as these courses are likely to be closed. You are not required to treat 15 October applicants differently as a class, providing you consider any support changes with fairness to all applicants in mind. This may mean, for example, that you choose to reduce the amount of financial support for each eligible applicant, rather than narrowing the eligibility for an award.   

If, having reviewed their choices, applicants via UCAS want to change to a different course, UCAS will facilitate change requests for affected applicants for a limited period up to the 15th January deadline. Only one change per choice will be permitted. 

Online financial information

It’s essential that the student finance information on your website is clear and up-to-date so students can find out about bursaries and other financial support quickly and easily. If you intend to make changes to your financial support package, you will therefore need to revisit the financial support information on your website as soon as possible to make potential applicants aware that universities and colleges are currently reviewing their rules and eligibility around financial support and, where appropriate, that the advertised amounts are subject to change.

To avoid applicants receiving multiple messages about these changes from each of their application choices, UCAS has confirmed that it will issue a statement through its next applicant bulletin, webpages and social media notifying all applicants of the change. We expect this announcement to be made later today (Thursday 28 November 2013). The high-level announcement will link to a notice from Government (included as an annex to HEFCE’s circular letter) which will be hosted on the HEFCE website at http://nsp.hefce.ac.uk/.

You must ensure that you contact all of your direct applicants – meaning those not applying through the UCAS system – to advise them of the change to the NSP. We encourage you to use the Government notice as the basis of this communication, to ensure consistency of information for all applicants.

Students will be advised via these notices that they should be able to access the revised financial packages at midday on Monday 16 December. You should ensure that your web pages and other literature are updated, and that student finance advisers are well briefed to advise applicants accordingly by this date.

What do you need to do now?

Informing applicants

  • If you intend to make changes to your financial support package, you will need to revisit the financial support information on your website as soon as possible, to make potential applicants aware that universities and colleges are currently reviewing their rules and eligibility around financial support and that, where appropriate, any advertised amounts are subject to change. 
  • Provided that any changes you make are in line with this guidance note, you do not need to wait for formal OFFA approval of any revisions to your financial support levels in advance of advertising them; you can do this afterwards. All revisions to financial support levels must be published on your website and elsewhere by midday on 16 December 2013 at the latest, making clear that these are subject to OFFA approval. 
  • We also require you to provide timely, accurate information to the Student Loans Company so they can populate their course databases.

Making changes to your agreement

  • All institutions with access agreements must confirm whether or not they are making changes to their access agreements using an OFFA Excel template, which will be available shortly to download from the HEFCE extranet. We will e-mail our institutional contacts when this template is available. If you wish to make changes to your access agreement, you will need to submit your revised agreement alongside your Excel template. 
  • OFFA contacts at your institution will be able to access the extranet using the group key originally provided for 2014-15 access agreements in spring 2013. This means that if you completed the original access agreement return, you will automatically have access to the OFFA Excel template. If you are unable to log into the extranet using your existing e-mail/password, please email enquiries@offa.org.uk for a replacement group key.   
  • We ask that you submit these documents by midday on 16 December 2013. We will assess any changes to your agreements based on our existing guidance for 2014-15 agreements, and the principles set out above. The earlier you submit your revised agreement, the earlier we will be able to provide you with a decision.  
  • You will also need to provide HEFCE with information related to your NSP intentions by the same deadline. Further details are set out in HEFCE Circular Letter 32/2013. 
  • We will share the information you submit to us with HEFCE, so that we have a full understanding of how you are responding to the changes in government policy. 
  • We will aim to let you know of our decision within five working days of submission, and at the latest by 20 December 2013.

Timetable

 

28 November 

Announcement by BIS of changes to NSP for 2014-15.

HEFCE circular letter to sector outlining NSP process.

OFFA issues guidance on submitting revised access agreements for 2014-15.

16 December (midday)

Deadline for submissions to OFFA for revisions to financial support and revised access agreements and HEFCE’s NSP intentions template.

All revisions to your financial support levels to be published on your website and elsewhere.

20 December OFFA will aim to inform all institutions of access agreement decisions by this date.

 Got a query?

If you have any queries about how to confirm your financial support for 2014-15 to OFFA, please contact us at enquiries@offa.org.uk, or phone 0117 931 7171.


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