Frequently asked questions
- What do you mean by ‘widening participation’ and ‘fair access’?
- What is a typical bursary?
- How much money do universities and colleges spend on access under their access agreements?
- Which students does OFFA cover?
- How do you define ‘lower income’ and ‘other under-represented groups’?
- What success have you had in safeguarding access to higher education?
- What have your other main achievements been to date?
- What targets do universities and colleges have to meet in order to charge higher fees?
- What happens if an institution doesn’t meet a target or milestone?
- Do universities have to set themselves targets to recruit students from certain ethnic groups?
- What powers does OFFA have?
- When would OFFA fine or sanction a university or college?
- Does your remit include admissions?
- Does OFFA require universities and colleges to use contextual data (e.g. information on what school an applicant went to) in their admissions procedures?
- What other positions does Professor Les Ebdon hold?
Both ‘widening participation’ and ‘fair access’ involve removing the barriers to higher education, including financial barriers, that students from lower income and other under-represented backgrounds face.
However, ‘widening participation’ refers to the participation of disadvantaged groups in higher education generally. ‘Fair access’ refers to the distribution of such students across England’s universities and colleges and whether this is fair by a number of socio-economic and educational criteria (while recognising that institutions vary in their missions and characteristics).
Bursaries awarded in 2012-13 vary greatly from £100 to £9,000 or more per academic year, so it is impossible to give a ‘typical’ figure. For more information about bursary amounts and types, see our Quick Facts section.
In the academic year 2010-11 (the most recent year for which we have monitoring data), universities and colleges spent £378.1 million on bursaries and scholarships for lower income students and other under-represented groups. The vast majority of this money (80.8 per cent) went to the poorest students i.e. students with a household income of less than £25,000.
In the same year, universities and colleges spent £45.7 million on outreach activities for people with the potential to succeed in higher education, e.g. masterclasses to help potential students improve their GCSE and A level grades or summer schools offering a taste of university life to children who may not have a family background in higher education.
In total, universities and colleges spent £424.2 million on access measures under their access agreements in 2010-11. This was almost a quarter (24.4 per cent) of their income from fees above the basic level.
Read our press release on the findings of our 2010-11 monitoring or find detailed information about access agreement expenditure in OFFA publication 2012/05, Access agreement and widening participation strategic assessment monitoring: Outcomes for 2010-11, available from our publications page.
OFFA regulates tuition fees and bursary packages for students from the UK and EU who are on publicly funded, undergraduate courses and postgraduate teacher training courses at English universities and colleges. We do not cover other postgraduate courses or overseas students.
All publicly funded universities and colleges in England must have an access agreement approved by us in order to be able to charge tuition fees above the basic level (for students starting in the academic year 2012-13, the basic fee level is £6,000 for a full-time course and £4,500 for a part-time course; lower thresholds apply to other students). We then monitor their progress in meeting their access agreement commitments on an annual basis.
OFFA’s remit is to safeguard access to education for under-represented groups. Primarily, these are lower income students.
We define lower income students as those with household incomes below the threshold for eligibility for a partial state maintenance grant. For students starting courses in 2012-13, this means a household income of less than £42,611. For students who started their courses in 2011-12 and earlier, lower thresholds apply.
We define lowest income students as those with a household income of less than the threshold for the full maintenance grant. For students starting courses in 2012-13, or who started their courses in any year since 2009-10, this means a household income of less than £25,000.
We use this measure for both part-time and full-time students although part-time students do not receive state maintenance grants.
We consider other under-represented groups to include:
- students from lower socio-economic groups and neighbourhoods in which relatively few people enter higher education
- students from some ethnic groups or sub-groups
- students who have been in care
- disabled students.
The introduction of higher fees in 2006-07 has not had a detrimental effect on participation of students from low income and other under-represented groups.
Since 2006 there have been rising trends in the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR), the ‘Full-time Young Participation by Socio-economic Class’ report published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) higher education performance indicators for widening participation. Analysis by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published in 2010 also showed an increase of more than 30 per cent in the chances of young people from disadvantaged areas going to university.
Initial evidence also strongly suggests that the new fee system from 2012 has not caused a decline in participation by young students from low income backgrounds and other under-represented groups. UCAS application figures for university courses starting in autumn 2013 show rising applications from 18 year olds living in disadvantaged areas of England, and application rates among this group now stand at a record high. Disadvantaged 18 year olds are now 80 per cent more likely to apply to higher education than they were nine years ago when OFFA was established.
However, there is still work to be done. We still see only one application from 18 year olds in disadvantaged areas for roughly every three applications from 18 year olds in advantaged areas; and UCAS statistics also show that the most advantaged young people are six to nine times more likely than the most disadvantaged young people to go to one of the universities with the highest entry requirements. There are also serious concerns about participation by mature and part-time students, who are statistically more likely to come from under-represented backgrounds.
Our key achievements have been as follows:
- More than 432,000 students from lower income and other under-represented groups received a bursary or scholarship in the academic year 2010-11, compared to 413,000 in 2009-10.
- Three-quarters of students who got a bursary or scholarship in 2010-11 were from the lowest income group (i.e. in receipt of full state support), up from 67.3 per cent in 2009-10. This reflects increased targeting of awards by institutions, in line with guidance from OFFA.
- In 2011-12 some 89 per cent of universities and colleges gave bursaries above the statutory minimum of £338 to students on full state support. The typical bursary for these students was around £900 a year.
- We have encouraged universities and colleges to support care leavers into higher education by promoting the Buttle UK Quality Mark for Care Leavers. Currently, 71 universities and colleges in England have the Quality Mark and 55 are offering additional bursaries specifically aimed at care leavers in the 2012-13 academic year (up from 31 in 2011-12).
Bursary awareness and take-up
- Bursary take-up among students from the lowest income group improved from 90 per cent in 2007-08 to 98 per cent in 2010-11.
Widening participation strategic statements
- We have worked closely with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on the introduction of widening participation strategic statements to ensure that access agreements are integrated with university and colleges’ broader WP strategy.
Universities and colleges set their own targets based on where they need to improve and what their particular institution is trying to achieve under its access agreement e.g. a university may choose to set itself a target for recruiting more disabled students or students from a particular ethnic background (see below for more information on targets regarding ethnicity). These targets must be agreed by OFFA. We require universities and colleges to set themselves at least one target around broadening their entrant pool. We also encourage (but do not require) them to set themselves further targets, particularly around their work on outreach and, where appropriate, retention. Most choose to do so.
We normally expect universities and colleges to have a range of targets in order to measure their progress effectively. When considering whether targets are sufficiently ambitious, we consider whether they represent a balanced view of the institution’s performance, and whether they address areas where indicators suggest that the institution has furthest to go to improve access.
From 2012-13, in line with Ministerial guidance, we are placing a greater emphasis on progress against targets. In considering progress against targets we will normally consider trends rather than single data points and will want to know the progress an institution is making, both in the short and long term. We would not, however, impose a sanction solely on the basis of a university or college not meeting its targets or milestones (see ‘What powers does OFFA have’ above and ‘What happens if an institution doesn’t meet a target or milestone?’ below).
In their most recent access agreements with us (for 2013-14), universities and colleges have agreed ambitious targets, often supported by significant increases in the resources they are devoting to widening participation and fair access. We publish all access agreements in full under Find an access agreement.
Universities and colleges set their own targets in the access agreement, appropriate to where they need to improve and their own access plans. These targets must be approved by OFFA.
Where a university or college is not making progress against its targets or milestones, we will discuss the reasons for this with the institution in question. We will expect it to investigate why it’s not making progress, and put in place new measures to tackle this. We might also steer it towards areas of good practice, or we might direct it to concentrate on particular areas of activity, target its financial support better or increase its overall spending on access.
No. The targets universities choose are based on their assessment of where they need to improve on access and, where appropriate, retention. As such, there is no requirement for universities to set themselves targets for recruiting students from a particular ethnic group although many currently do so.
Under-representation in higher education by ethnicity is a complex issue. Current available evidence suggests that, at a national level, many minority ethnic groups have higher participation rates than white groups. However, there are considerable disparities between ethnic groups in terms of participation rates, patterns of study and degree attainment. In addition, black and minority ethnic students are concentrated in certain institutions and subjects, so there are important issues of fair access. For more information, see the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Student ethnicity issues paper, published in 2010, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s Students in Higher Education publication for 2009-10, which shows (among other things) the breakdown by ethnicity of students at individual institutions.
Universities and colleges must have an access agreement approved by the Director of Fair Access to be able to charge tuition fees above the basic level. We review access agreements annually. More information about access agreements
There are two sanctions open to us if a university or college seriously and wilfully breaches its access agreement. We can:
- direct HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) or the Teaching Agency to deduct a fine from the university or college’s grant or suspend part of its grant until it has put matters right
- refuse to renew the university’s or college’s access agreement, thereby preventing it from charging full-time undergraduate students tuition fees above the standard level for a period after its access agreement has expired.
We will only use the sanctions listed above if in our opinion a university or college has committed a serious and wilful breach of its access agreement, for example by charging higher fees than set out in its access agreement or by failing to deliver the outreach and retention measures it has committed itself to. We would not impose a sanction solely because a university or college has not met the targets or milestones it has set itself. See ‘What happens if an institution doesn’t meet a target or milestone?’ above.
When looking at a potential breach, we consider each case individually, taking into account the efforts made to comply with the access agreement. For example, if a university or college spends less than intended on outreach because of unavoidable delays in implementing a project, we will want assurance on its future outreach expenditure but are unlikely to apply a fine. Similarly, if a university makes a mistake in delivering financial support to students, we would require it to rectify the situation and pay any shortfall, but we would not necessarily apply a fine.
Further detail on sanctions can be found in Annex A of our most recent guidance to institutions, which is available on our publications page.
OFFA’s remit does not cover admissions. The Higher Education Act 2004 specifically excludes institutions’ admissions policies and procedures from our remit (see point 3 of the original guidance letter we received). It is therefore inaccurate and misleading to call us the ‘admissions watchdog’. If you are looking for a succinct way of describing what we do, you could call us ‘the fair access watchdog’.
Does OFFA require universities and colleges to use contextual data (e.g. information on what school an applicant went to) in their admissions procedures?
No. Universities and colleges set their own admissions policies and procedures. The law specifically excludes admissions from our remit (see ‘Does your remit include admissions?’ above) and it is right that it should do so.
However, as ministers have recognised, one way for institutions to broaden their applicant pool and so include more students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to benefit from higher education is to take contextual data into account in their admissions process. Such data could include, for example, levels of average attainment in an applicant’s school or other indicators of under-representation. If universities choose to use contextual data, we are happy for them to include any extra costs involved (for example, the cost of monitoring and evaluating the use of such data) in their access agreements.
Many institutions already use contextual data in a variety of ways – some use it to target their outreach, for example, while others use it when deciding which applicants to make offers to.
Professor Ebdon currently holds the following positions:
- Deputy Lieutenant for Bedfordshire
- Fellow, Royal Society of Chemistry
- Trustee, Royal Society of Chemistry Pension Fund
- Fellow, Royal Society of the Arts
- Convenor, Education Chaplaincy Working Group, Baptist Union of Great Britain
- Vice Patron, Luton Christian Education Trust
- President, United Nations Association – Luton
- Vice President, The Bedford Hospitals Charity
- Patron, The Bletchley Park Trust
- Member, Youth at Risk Advisory Board
- Member, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Measurement Board
- Member, Further Education and Skills Ministerial Advisory Panel.