Frequently asked questions (journalists)

Answers to the questions we are most commonly asked by journalists

This page is part of our online press centre.

For a summary of the current state of fair access to higher education in England and the remaining challenges, see our background briefing Fair access to higher education in England: key facts and biggest issues, which covers topics such as falling mature student numbers, differences in degree outcomes for Black and minority ethnic students, and progress towards the Government’s goals on fair access. 

For facts and figures about tuition fees and what universities and colleges do/spend to improve access, see summary statistics.

For definitions of jargon such as “widening participation”, “fair access”, “under-represented groups” etc, refer to our online glossary.

For information about who we are and what we do, see the About us section.

What targets do universities and colleges have to meet in order to charge higher fees?

OFFA does not set targets for individual universities and colleges. 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. 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.

OFFA has set targets for improvement across the whole higher education sector, in our latest Strategic Plan.

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What happens if an institution doesn’t meet a target or milestone?

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.

OFFA has the power to impose sanctions on institutions but would not do this solely because an institution had not made progress against its targets or milestones. Find out more about our powers and sanctions

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Do universities have to set themselves targets to recruit students from certain ethnic groups?

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 and qualifiers in UK higher education publication, which shows (among other things) the breakdown by ethnicity of students at individual institutions.

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Do universities have to set themselves targets to recruit students who went to state schools?

No. We do not ask universities and colleges to set themselves a target around the numbers of students they recruit from state school backgrounds. We are happy for them to set a state school target if they wish to, but in most circumstances we would not approve an access agreement allowing an institution to measure the diversity of its student body solely on the basis of the numbers of state school pupils it recruits. This is because going to a state school does not necessarily indicate a disadvantaged background, just as being privately educated does not necessarily indicate advantage, so it is conceivable that a university could improve its proportion of state school students without recruiting greater proportions of students from disadvantaged groups.

There is no single, ideal measure or indicator of disadvantage and we expect each university or college to take a balanced view, using a range of broad categories of under-representation, for example, measures around low participation neighbourhoods and social class as well as school type or performance.

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What powers does OFFA have?

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:

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When would OFFA fine or sanction a university or college?

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.

Find out more about our powers and sanctions

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What does OFFA think about university admissions policies?

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) and it is right that it does so because universities’ autonomy in admissions is one of the factors that contributes to the world-class strength of the English higher education sector.

It is therefore not appropriate for us to comment on admissions policies. It is also 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’.

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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 information into account in their admissions process. Such information 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 information, we are happy for them to include any extra costs involved (for example, the cost of monitoring and evaluating the use of such information) in their access agreements.

Many institutions already use contextual information 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.

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