OFFA’s response to the Government’s higher education Green Paper

We have produced this short briefing to share the key points we have made in our response to the Government’s Green Paper – Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’

For our full response to the consultation, see here.   

Our key points

Continued independence is the key to strengthening the role of the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education

The Green Paper proposes that the “role of the Director of Fair Access will continue to be a specific and strengthened role within the Office for Students.”

Our response

We welcome the proposal that the Director should play ‘a specific and strengthened role’ within the proposed new Office for Students. This is a real opportunity to continue the progress that has been made in the last decade and to help meet the Prime Minister’s ambitions around fair access.

In order to accelerate recent record progress on fair access, we believe the Director must remain a high-profile, single-focused role within the OfS. To ensure fair access is not diluted by other priorities, it will also be crucial for the Director to have the independence, powers and profile to support and challenge the sector to make further improvements across the lifecycle. We therefore say that the Director should:  

Continuing to require institutions to set their own access agreement targets will help drive further progress

The Green Paper proposes: “an option would be for the new Office for Students to have the power to set targets for providers that are failing to make progress on agreed widening participation goals, or where the outcomes for specific groups are below expectations.”

Our response

We believe that the responsibility for setting access agreement targets should remain with individual universities and colleges with the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education helping to set expectations for institutions and being responsible for approving targets. This is because:

The creation of the Office for Students brings opportunities for fair access

The Green Paper proposes “to establish a new regulator and student champion, the Office for Students.”

Our response

If single focus access regulation is retained within the new architecture, so ensuring that access is not traded against other priorities, the proposed changes could represent a major opportunity to enhance fair access. It could help bring greater coherence and ensure that widening participation is embedded across the different regulatory functions of the new Office for Students. For instance, the Teaching Excellence Framework could work to ensure that the future system of quality assessment enhances and reinforces policies on access and supports a reduction in differential outcomes.

Because of the wide remit of the Office for Students, there is an opportunity to consider fair access issues more effectively across the different functions of the OfS, including ensuring that:

Ensuring the Teaching Excellence Framework works for students from disadvantaged backgrounds 

The Green Paper proposes “to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework [which] will deliver better value for money for students, employers and taxpayers.”

Our response

We are pleased that the Green Paper identifies the importance of fair access to the TEF.

We especially welcome:

In order to ensure that the TEF supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds the Government should work to ensure that outcomes – rather than inputs – are key to informing an institution’s TEF award level.

Promoting fair access to postgraduate study and reversing the decline in part-time student numbers

When discussing ambitions for further progress on fair access, the Green Paper asks if there are any other groups or measures the Government should consider.

Our response

We set out our full response in answer to Question 12c. In particular, we highlight part-time and postgraduate students as areas where the Government should look to develop policy.

Postgraduate students

On postgraduate study, our view is that the postgraduate loan system should require institutions to have a firm commitment to improving widening participation – in the same way that institutions are required to have an approved access agreement if they want to charge undergraduate students higher fees. The Government should consider what role the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education can play to promote and safeguard access to postgraduate taught study as well as undergraduate study. This could include using legislation to extend our remit to cover postgraduate taught students. This would ensure that barriers to access are considered at all levels of study, and would help to unlock access for postgraduate study for disadvantaged students.

Part-time students

We also recognise the dramatic and worrying decline in the number of part-time students. We welcome proposals from the Government to introduce maintenance loans for part-time students, and we make a number of suggestions to further support part-time students as follows:-

  1. Allowing fee loans to be applied to part-time credits, regardless of whether a student wishes to secure a full qualification. This would enable people from disadvantaged backgrounds to have a ‘taste’ of higher education without needing to find funds upfront.
  2. Encouraging credit accumulation and transfer between recognised awarding institutions.
  3. Extending the relaxation of restrictions on students with ‘equivalent level qualifications’ to all part-time courses.