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OFFA annual report warns over drop in part-time and mature student recruitment

Falling part-time and mature student numbers since the rise in tuition fees must be tackled to make access to higher education more fair, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) warns today.

Writing in OFFA’s annual report for 2012-13 [note 1], Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, says:

“I am very concerned by the significant decline in part-time and mature numbers as students in these groups are more likely to be from groups under-represented in higher education. If higher education is truly to meet the needs of all those with the talent to benefit, it must be flexible enough to support those who choose to study later in life, whether part-time or full-time, as well as those who go straight to university from school.”

The number of people starting part-time higher education courses has dropped 40 per cent since 2010 and there has been a 7.1 per cent fall in mature entrants (i.e. those aged 20 and older, who make up more than half of undergraduates) between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years [note 2].

Professor Ebdon adds:

“We need more mature students to meet the demand for graduates in the economy so it’s vital that we understand what has caused the drop and what can be done about it. I therefore look forward to the outcomes of Universities UK’s review of part-time and mature higher education, later this year. Part-time access will also be a core consideration of the national strategy for access and student success that OFFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England are developing with the sector [note 3].

“One possible reason contributing to the decline could be that the new student finance system has not been communicated clearly enough to prospective part-time and mature students. Universities and colleges have a role to play in addressing this, for example, by reaching out to mature learners through employers and communities and we have encouraged them to do this in their latest access agreements with us. It’s also important that they share good practice in this area.” [note 4]

In today’s report, Professor Ebdon also urges universities and colleges to keep up their work reaching out to potential young, full-time students even though application rates from this group appear, so far, to be holding up. He writes:

“Data for the 2012-13 academic year, and for the 2013-14 application cycle which is still underway, may not prove to be indicative of longer term trends. This is because it’s likely that students who applied for entry in 2012-13 and 2013-14 had already made up their mind to go to university [before the fee changes]. In future, we will see students applying whose minds were not yet made up when the new system was introduced, and we cannot be sure how they will respond.”

OFFA’s recent monitoring report [note 5] shows that universities and colleges continue to invest substantially under their OFFA-approved access agreements, including increasing their investment in outreach with schools and communities in disadvantaged areas.

Writing in today’s report, Professor Ebdon praises this outreach work and says he is confident that universities and colleges are willing to do their part to improve fair access to higher education:

“One of the things that has most struck me during my many institutional visits [note 6] is the outstanding work being done by many institutions to raise aspirations and attainment levels among those who may feel that university is not for them.

“Universities and colleges appreciate that achieving a more socially representative student body is not only a social duty but also in their direct interests, enabling them to recruit from the widest possible pool of academic talent. As I’m always keen to point out, there is no conflict between fair access and academic excellence.”


 For further information contact

Sophie Mason, OFFA Communications and Press Adviser (0117 931 7204)

Or Zita Adamson, OFFA Communications Manager (0117 931 7272)

or email

 Notes to editors

  1. Read OFFA’s annual report and accounts for 2012-13
  2. Source: Higher Education Funding Council for England publication 2013/03, Higher education in England: Impact of the 2012 reforms (March 2013), based on UCAS ‘Accepted applicants’ data.
  3. More information on the national strategy for access and student success.
  4. Decisions on 2014-15 access agreements will be announced on Thursday 11 July 2013. OFFA published guidance on the content of these agreements in OFFA publication 2013/01, How to produce an access agreement for 2014-15.
  5. OFFA published the outcomes of its monitoring of 2011-12 access agreements last month in OFFA publication 2013/02, Access agreement and widening participation strategic assessment 2011-12 and National Scholarship Programme 2012-13 (in-year) monitoring outcomes. Spending under 2011-12 access agreements was £444.1 million (compared to £424.2 million in 2010-11) including a 26 per cent increase in outreach spending from £45.7 million to £57.6 million.
  6. Since taking up his post in September 2012, Professor Ebdon has visited more than 40 universities and colleges.
  7. 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, particularly for lower-income and other under-represented groups. The main way we do this is by approving and monitoring access agreements. All publicly funded English universities and colleges offering undergraduate (and some postgraduate) higher education courses must have an access agreement approved by OFFA in order to charge above the basic fee (in the academic years 2012-13 and 2013-14 this is £6,000 per year for full-time students and £4,500 for part-time students). More about OFFA.


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