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Access agreement decisions for 2015-16: a striking change in spending patterns

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) today (Thursday 24 July) publishes access agreements for the 172 universities and colleges wishing to charge higher tuition fees in 2015-16. Today’s agreements reveal a significant shift in predicted spending patterns, with universities increasingly tailoring their spending to address the individual challenges they face to seek out and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

OFFA reports that in these new agreements universities and colleges with low proportions of under-represented students – typically highly selective institutions – will spend more on targeted, long-term outreach work to raise aspirations and attainment. At the same time, institutions that already have more representative student bodies will increase their investment in work to support under-represented students in their studies and help them progress to employment or postgraduate study. This is illustrated in note 1 below.

Commenting, Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said:

“I am pleased with the increasingly strategic, evidence-led approach we are seeing in the access agreements that universities and colleges submit to us. Most notably, we’ve seen a clear change in investment patterns, with universities and colleges following OFFA guidance to identify the areas in which they most need to improve and then to focus the balance of their effort accordingly, making sure they are investing in approaches and activities likely to have the greatest impact.”

Across the sector as a whole, access agreements for 2015-16 show significantly greater investment in work by universities and colleges to raise aspirations and attainment by students from disadvantaged backgrounds and then support these students to succeed in their studies and progress to employment or postgraduate study. Spending in this kind of work across the student lifecycle [see note 2] has increased by 33 per cent in cash terms, from £243 million to £323 million under steady state [see note 3]. This consists of:

  • £146 million on outreach work (up from £125 million under 2014-15 access agreements). Increasingly, universities and colleges are delivering long-term, sustained work – often in collaboration with others – helping to raise aspirations and attainment among those with the talent to benefit from higher education
  • £131 million on work to support students through their studies, for example tailored induction and buddying programmes that  help to create a sense of belonging (up from £119 million under 2014-15 access agreements)
  • £46 million on programmes to support students as they prepare to move into employment or postgraduate study, for example practical support for job interviews and mentoring and advice from professionals. This figure is recorded separately for the first time.

In addition, universities and colleges plan to spend £412 million on financial support under their 2015-16 access agreements, including bursaries, scholarships, fee waivers and hardship funds. This is down from £465 million under 2014-15 access agreements, a reduction that partly reflects the increased flexibility institutions have in terms of how they focus their access agreement spend, following the Government’s decision to end the National Scholarship Programme after 2014-15 [see note 4]. There has been a significant reduction in fee waivers (down from 30 per cent of total financial support in 2014-15 agreements to 6 per cent under these new agreements). A greater proportion of financial support is either going straight to students’ pockets in the form of bursaries and scholarships, or is being offered as ‘student choice’, where students can decide whether to receive support in the form of a bursary, fee waiver or as an in-kind award [see note 5].

Analysis previously published by OFFA suggests that, under the old system of fees, the precise amount of bursary awarded by a university or college did not affect a student’s choice of university, nor did it have an observable effect on the likelihood of a student continuing with their course. We have asked institutions to consider this analysis, and their own evidence, to ensure that financial support is carefully targeted and to evaluate the impact of the bursaries they give to students. We are now seeking to develop a fuller understanding of the impact of financial support under the new system, in particular to see how universities and colleges are aligning their financial support with the rest of their work across the student lifecycle.

Of the 172 access agreements received for 2015-16, a total of 33 were not approvable in their original form. OFFA’s negotiations led to 16 institutions amending the targets they set themselves and 17 institutions increasing their spend by a total of £9 million. Universities and colleges have now delivered approvable access agreements in all cases.

Professor Ebdon added:

“These new access agreements commit the whole sector to significant and sustained work that should make a lasting impact. Our guidance is designed to be flexible, and gives institutions the freedom to consider how best to implement their plans. However, there were occasions where initial submissions needed some work and we had to negotiate to achieve a satisfactory outcome. I’m happy to say that we achieved this in every instance. The extra funding and ambition that our negotiations have secured highlights the importance of OFFA’s role to challenge institutions and achieve the very best results for disadvantaged students.

“Higher education offers life-changing opportunities and it’s important that people from all backgrounds are able to access these opportunities. This new set of access agreements will help to ensure that access to higher education is based on talent, not background.”


For further information contact

Zita Adamson (OFFA Communications Manager) on 0117 931 7272 or Sean Beynon (OFFA Press and Communications Adviser) on 0117 931 7022, or email

Some examples of the work universities and colleges will deliver under their 2015-16 access agreements

Newcastle University – Students into Schools

Students into Schools is a long-term outreach programme where undergraduate students have the opportunity to work as tutors in schools. The programme serves a dual purpose in that it raises aspirations and attainment in young learners, while improving the employability skills of the students engaged in the work. The programme supports over 8,500 pupils and teachers in local schools. Each year, around 180 Newcastle University students participate in the programme, and receive academic credit for their participation.

Edge Hill University – university employability strategy

Edge Hill University is developing a University Employability Strategy. This strategy seeks to embed employability into the university curriculum and develop a whole-institution approach to ‘progression work’. As part of the strategy, all university departments will produce their own employability plans to help students develop their employability skills throughout their time as a student. This work will be supported at a senior level by the Pro Vice Chancellor (External Relations) who will have responsibility for student recruitment, collaborative relationships, employer engagement and other externally facing activities.

Weston College – flexible summer schools

Weston College offers a summer school that focuses on building the confidence of potential mature and part-time students. The scheme is specifically targeted at those who are returning to education after a break, or want to study part-time to fit around work and family commitments. It aims to reduce the barriers to entry and success for such students and reduce their anxiety and apprehension. The summer school covers topics including: time management; referencing; presentation skills; and research skills. There are also opportunities to meet current students to discuss student life. If they wish, participants can choose to attend only part of the programme if they have work or family commitments that prevent them attending full-time.

Notes for editors

    1. The following graphs, taken from our report Access agreements for 2015-16: key statistics and analysis, illustrate differences in spending patterns between groups of institutions based on the proportion of under-represented students they have.

2015-16 access agreement decisions Figure 3Note: ‘Access’ expenditure refers to the outreach activity universities and colleges carry out to raise aspirations and attainment among those with the talent to benefit from higher education.

2015-16 access agreement decisions Figure 4

  1. The student lifecycle is used to refer to the entirety of the higher education experience for students. The lifecycle approach to widening participation helps to ensure that approaches to widen access, improve retention and support student success and progression are developed and delivered strategically across the institution.
  2. In order to make meaningful comparisons between different access agreements, we look at institutions’ predicted spend in “steady state”. Institutions update their agreements annually, but steady state figures indicate what the institution might expect to spend if all student cohorts (i.e. first, second, third and fourth year students) were under the same fees and financial support package, assuming their predictions on income, spend and student number controls remain the same. Most undergraduate courses are three or four years long, so for 2015-16 access agreements, steady state refers to 2018-19.
  3. Commitments made by universities and colleges under the National Scholarship Programme had to be delivered as financial support (or in-kind support, such as discounts on accommodation) to students.
  4. In 2015-16 access agreements under steady state 89 per cent of financial support is provided as either a bursary or scholarship, or as student choice, where individuals can choose how they receive their financial support. This has increased from 70 per cent under 2014-15 access agreements.
  5. Access agreements for 2015-16: key statistics and analysis, is published on Thursday 24 July at
  6. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is an independent, non-departmental public body established under the Higher Education Act 2004 to help promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for people from under-represented groups. For more information see

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