The Office for Fair Access closed at the end of 31 March 2018 and responsibility for higher education access regulation transferred to the Office for Students

OFFA access agreement guidance – universities must play their part to raise school attainment

Universities must work closely with schools if they are to ensure that talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to secure higher education places. That’s the message from Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, who has today published his access agreement guidance for universities and colleges. Any university or college wishing to charge students higher tuition fees in 2018-19 must first have an access agreement approved by Professor Ebdon [note 1].

In his guidance, Professor Ebdon sets out his expectation that universities should explain how they are working with schools to raise attainment. Where appropriate, universities will be expected to strengthen these partnerships, including through the sponsorship of schools and academies to help drive faster improvements in attainment.

Commenting, Professor Ebdon said:

“There are more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education than ever before. While this is extremely welcome, there is much more to be done to ensure that someone born in a disadvantaged area is as likely to enter higher education as someone born in an advantaged area. One of the key ways universities can make a real difference is to ensure that they are working hand-in-hand with schools to make sure that aspirations and attainment can be raised in our disadvantaged communities.

“For some time, a number of universities – especially those with the highest entrance requirements – have told me that there’s a limit to what they can do to improve fair access because people from disadvantaged areas secure – on average – lower entrance grades. I’m afraid this argument just doesn’t hold water. It is precisely because there are lower rates of attainment in disadvantaged areas that universities must work in close partnership with schools to raise attainment. Indeed, there are many examples of universities already working closely and creatively with schools [note 2] and I expect to see much more of it. Raising the attainment of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds is crucial, and I want it to be a major part of the access plans of universities.

“This new guidance gives universities the opportunity to be flexible, tailoring approaches to raising attainment such as school sponsorship to their own circumstances. I am looking forward to seeing how universities rise to this challenge and am confident that the new measures and targets they put in place will make a sustained, positive difference to fair access in England.”


For further information contact Aislinn Keogh (Press and Communications Adviser) at OFFA on 0117 931 7173 or


  1. Access agreements are documents setting out how a university or college charging higher fees intends to safeguard and promote fair access to higher education, for example through outreach work in schools to raise learners’ aspiration and attainment, or by giving financial support such as bursaries. They also include targets and milestones, set by the university/college itself so that it can measure its progress, and sets out the tuition fees the university or college will charge. Access agreements must be approved by OFFA as a condition of the university or college charging higher fees, and they are therefore the main way that we can challenge universities and colleges to improve access.
  2. For example:
    • The University for the Creative Arts is the lead sponsor of Strood Academy. The academy opened in 2009, and in 2015, 100% of pupils achieved at least one GCSE pass grade, with 43% achieving five A*-C including Maths and English, increasing from 23% and 18% respectively at the former girls’ and boys’ schools. The pass rate at level 3 (A level and BTEC) has also risen to 100%, with 64.2% at grades A*-B.
    • The University of the West of England runs an initiative with schools in the Bristol city region called ‘Better Reading Partners’ targeted at children aged between 5 and 7 who are reading significantly below their expected level. Evaluation has shown that children involved in the initiative have made as much as double their expected progress over the intervention. The support was particularly effective for boys in receipt of free school meals with English as an additional language. 
    • Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) are the lead education partner in St Paul’s Way, an all-through school from primary to sixth form, and support the school with a range of short and long term initiatives. The school, now graded outstanding by Ofsted, is taking steps to become an academy and lead the development of a multi-academy trust, which QMUL will support as lead sponsor.