How we regulate

Our approach as the access regulator

OFFA regulates providers of higher education in England who have access agreements (full definition of criteria for this), providing both challenge and support to them.

We aim to do this fairly, transparently and proportionately, minimising unnecessary burden and bureaucracy, involving those we regulate in the development of our processes, setting out our requirements clearly and only asking for information that we need.

We operate with regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth, as required by Section 8 of the Deregulation Act 2015 (the ‘growth duty’) and report on this every year in our annual reports and accounts.

We also have a duty to report against the Government’s Business Impact Target under the Enterprise Act 2016, assessing the impact on higher education providers of any new regulatory activity or changes to our current activity using an approved methodology, and publishing these assessments from 2017. From the statutory guidance we have concluded that OFFA’s regulatory provisions are excluded from the Business Impact Target, making them non-qualifying regulatory provisions (NQRPs), so our report will contain only a summary of these.

How we challenge and support universities and colleges

We publish clear guidance for the higher education providers we regulate, setting out our expectations, requirements and deadlines. In that guidance, we explain in plain English how we will work with them, what our powers are, and what they should do if they have any concerns.

Our guidance includes regular updates on key strategic priorities, plus wider ongoing guidance on our expectations and what we consider to be good practice. This includes an annual event for people developing access agreements, where they can talk to us and to one another, learning and sharing knowledge and experiences. Where there is a need for timely, ad hoc guidance on specific issues outside of our annual guidance, we send this directly to institutions in guidance notes which we also publish on our website.

Our guidance is supported by year-round telephone and face to face support from our team of policy advisers, who are trained specifically to work with university and college staff.

Alongside this, we work to improve and share understanding about effective practices, providing and facilitating opportunities for those with experience or interest in widening participation and fair access to communicate among themselves and with us.

How we involve others in the development of our policies, processes and service standards

Our team of policy advisers maintain one-to-one working relationships with the staff at universities and colleges who are involved in our processes. We welcome formal and informal feedback from them at any time (how to give feedback or make a complaint).

Our Advisory Group and Access Agreement Reference Group, which feed into the development of our high-level policies and operational processes respectively, both include representatives from the institutions we regulate. The Advisory Group also includes representatives from other areas of the higher education sector, and experts in various fields related to our work.

We also frequently engage with other higher education staff (for example, researchers in the field of widening participation, finance staff and administrators) and people working in other fields related to our work (for example, schools and charities), through events, meetings and social media.

And we provide formal, public consultations and calls for evidence wherever appropriate for the development of new policies. These are widely publicised and anyone may input to them if they choose.

Business impact target

Under the Enterprise Act 2016, the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education has a statutory duty to report against the Government’s Business Impact Target (BIT) each year. The Director of Fair Access to Higher Education must report against the Business Impact Target by providing the following summary of Non-Qualifying Regulatory Provisions (NQRPs) for the reporting period 5th May 2015 to 8th June 2017.

Regulators in scope of the Business Impact Target, such as the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, must publish:

The information for the Office for Fair Access is set out below.

Qualifying Regulatory Provisions

OFFA has no Qualifying Regulatory Provisions to report.

Non-Qualifying Regulatory Provisions

Category L1: Casework

OFFA has addressed a number of minor access agreement breaches. We expect to resolve all minor breaches with institutions through our scheme of engagement and paths to resolution which are communicated to institutions.

Category L2: Education, communications and promotion

OFFA is devising new means to communicate evidence effectively through ‘topic briefings’ on our website (seven in this reporting period) and other routes identified through our stakeholder engagement plan. The outcome for regulatory activities is expected to be improved policy uptake and implementation leading to acceleration in institutions meeting our Access targets.

In September 2016, OFFA set up an Access Agreement Reference Group, which meets 2-3 times per year. The Reference Group has provided a valuable opportunity for the universities and colleges that we regulate to provide greater input into and feedback on how we operate.

Category L3: Activity related to policy development

Following sector consultation, since 2015 we have published a list of higher education providers for which we have identified minor breaches of access agreements. The list includes names of institutions, circumstances of the breach and details of successful resolution. We also provide a proportionate approach to the resolution of minor breaches through a flexible reinvestment policy which may be adopted voluntarily by an institution as one of two options to resolution of the breach so that where the administrative burden of repaying a student who has been underpaid a bursary or overcharged tuition fees is greater than the benefit to individual students, we will consider allowing institutions to reinvest extra funds into their access agreements.

We have adopted the use of qualitative data analysis software to interrogate narrative evidence in institutions’ access agreements and monitoring returns, providing more consistent, reliable and comparable analysis across the sector. The outcome for regulatory activities is a quicker response to queries, reduction of staff workload and hence the cost of delivering access agreement approval.

We are now contracting institutional consortia to conduct research supplying an independent and robust source of evidence on the effectiveness of current and future OFFA policy. This represents a shift from our previous approach of providing in-house research evidence although we continue to use in-house work to inform our policies. The policy is aimed at embedding evidence-led practice and supporting providers in identifying effective practice, with benefits to their effective use of higher fee income as a source of public money. There is no change to our Strategic Plan objective of championing effective practice through evidence.

Category L4: Changes to management of regulation

In order to improve regulatory practices and to extend its remit in line with new ministerial guidance, OFFA has altered its management structure to increase the membership of its senior management team and its overall staff headcount. The outcome will be improvements to customer handling and communications, improvements to the delegation scheme and line management and our response to the Minister’s request that we undertake new work around the remit of the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education.

There are no measures under reporting categories A to K.

Further information about our regulatory processes

Please follow the links below to find information about specific aspects of our regulation. If you have any queries, please contact us

Who we are and what we do

Aims and objectives

What is an access agreement and do you need one?

What is monitoring and do you need to do it?

How we assess access agreements

What happens if an access agreement is breached

About our powers and sanctions

List of access agreement breaches to date