Questions and answers on drawing up your 2015-16 access agreement

The funding environment

Where can we find information on HEFCE’s decisions on our funding allocations for 2014-15?

Where can we find information about the National Collaborative Outreach Network announced by BIS?

The Government has announced a £50 million scheme to help remove barriers to participation in postgraduate education in 2015-16. When will we be given further information about the arrangements for this?

The Strategies for Access and Student Success (SASS) were not introduced this year. Will OFFA and HEFCE be introducing them in future? 

2015-16 access agreement process

Where can we find the access agreement resource plan template?

How will OFFA allow institutions the flexibility to manage the significant changes to the funding environment?

The resource plan asks for a breakdown of the costs of access, student success and progression activity. What should I record as ‘progression’ spend?

Table 4 of the resource plan asks for our total expenditure on access, student success and progression, separately from only our OFFA-countable spend. What will this information be used for?

When estimating my institution’s total expenditure on access, student success and progression, what assumptions should I make about changes to the student opportunity allocation I will receive in 2015-16 and beyond?

HEFCE requirements

What are HEFCE’s requirements for institutions in receipt of student opportunity funding?

Students covered by access agreements

Table 4 of the resource plan asks for the proportion of institutions’ total spend on access, student success and progression which uses OFFA-countable funding. What do you mean by OFFA-countable students?

Can we count expenditure on postgraduate students in our access agreement? 

Should I include social work students and/or fifth year medical students in the access agreement?

What impact will the recently-announced Government measures to modernise the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) from 2015-16 have on access agreements? 

Should we include School Direct trainee teachers in our access agreement?

Fees and fee levels

What are the maximum fee caps for 2015-16?

Where can I find guidance on tuition fee regulations?

Continuing students

Do I need to include fee limits for continuing students in our access agreement?

Am I allowed to increase fees for continuing students in 2015-16 to allow for inflation?

My institution is not planning on charging more than the basic fee for new entrants in 2015-16. However, our continuing students who started in previous years are being charged more than the basic fee. What happens now?

Financial support

My institution is not planning to charge higher fees for part-time students but has access measures aimed at part-time students. Can we include this in the expenditure we report to you?

Am I allowed to record spend on hardship funds, previously funded through the Access to Learning Fund (ALF), in my 2015-16 access agreement?

Table 5 of the resource plan – Expenditure on financial support – asks us to report on ‘Student Choice’. What investment can be included here? 

Good practice

What is OFFA’s approach to flexible learning and two-year accelerated honours degrees?

Outreach

I want to target my institution’s outreach work as effectively as possible. Can you direct me to any advice/good practice on this?

Why is OFFA asking for information on long term outreach in 2014-15 access agreements?

My institution doesn’t do any work with younger age groups. What should I put in our access agreement?

The funding environment

Q. Where can we find information on HEFCE’s decisions on our funding allocations for 2014-15?

A. HEFCE published provisional funding allocations for 2014-15 on 27 March. Full details are given in Recurrent grants and student number controls for 2014-15: initial allocations (HEFCE publication 2014/05).

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Q. Where can we find information about the National Collaborative Outreach Network announced by BIS?

A. As part of the £25 million funding available to develop the National Collaborative Outreach Network, HEFCE has indicated it will provide £3 million in 2014-15 to support the national roll-out of a data tracking service, the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT). This will track participants on widening participation outreach activities, and their entry to, and progress through, higher education. The remaining £22 million will be distributed across the 2014-15 academic year (£9 million) and the 2015-16 academic year (£13 million) to fund the development of the national network. HEFCE has said it will write to institutions about the programme in due course. More information about the HEFCE Board’s funding decisions is available in HEFCE’s Circular Letter 04/2014 and in Recurrent grants and student number controls for 2014-15: initial allocations (HEFCE publication 2014/05). For more information about the National Collaborative Outreach Network or the HEAT roll-out, please contact Clair Murphy at HEFCE (c.murphy@hefce.ac.uk).

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Q. The Government has announced a £50 million scheme to help remove barriers to participation in postgraduate education in 2015-16. When will we be given further information about the arrangements for this?

A. In July 2013, the Government stated that it would take lessons from the Postgraduate Support Scheme (PSS) to inform how best to support postgraduate education from 2015-16. The PSS was launched by HEFCE in July 2013, to test finance and activity models for supporting progression and success in postgraduate education for those students who are currently under-represented and in areas that speak to the Government’s industrial strategy. Twenty funded projects are now underway and will feed into HEFCE’s advice to Government about how best to allocate the £50 million in 2015-16. Information on the arrangements for that funding should be available in Spring 2015.

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Q. The Strategies for Access and Student Success (SASS) were not introduced this year. Will OFFA and HEFCE be introducing them in future?

A. OFFA and HEFCE originally announced that we would request a Strategy for Access and Student Success from all  publicly funded institutions, bringing together access agreements and Widening Participation Strategic Statements. However, in February 2014 these plans were changed because of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ unexpected delay in sending HEFCE’s grant letter; and we recognised that institutions needed sufficient notice to make progress with developing their access and student success plans.

Much of the work that OFFA and HEFCE put in to developing the SASS has had a positive impact in helping us to bring our processes into closer alignment. The development of the SASS has also informed our guidance for 2015-16 access agreements.

We may consider introducing the SASS in future years; a decision on whether to formally integrate access agreements and WPSS for next year will be taken in the autumn.

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2015-16 access agreement process

Q. Where can we find the access agreement resource plan template?

A. Your 2015-16 access agreement resource plan template is now available to download from the HEFCE Extranet. We wrote to our main access agreement contacts with Extranet details on 27 March. 

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Q. How will OFFA allow institutions the flexibility to manage the significant changes to the funding environment?

A. HEFCE’s grant letter indicated that there will be changes to grant funding for 2014-15 which may have an impact on the plans you set out in previous access agreements.

Some elements of your previous access agreements (for example, financial support for students) are firm commitments. These must remain. However, other elements, such as the specific activities you deliver, can be managed flexibly, while preserving the substance of your access agreement commitments.

We want to give you the flexibility to manage these changes as you see fit, and to enable you to prioritise activities that will help you to make the most effective progress towards your targets, while taking account of the steers in our guidance.

This means as long as you provide us with an understanding of broad level inputs and outcomes committed to in the agreement we recognise and accept that you may wish to provide less definition than normal on aspects of your approach and activities.

The degree of uncertainty may relate to your exposure to any cuts in student opportunity funding and institutions that are able to plan in more detail remain free to set this out at a level that they feel adequately conveys their commitments.

While we are offering support by allowing flexibility to manage changes to the funding environment, we will also continue to provide challenge to institutions on their expenditure levels (and the balance of this expenditure) where it does not reflect institutional performance on access, student success and progression to employment or further study.

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Q. The resource plan asks for a breakdown of the costs of access, student success and progression activity. What should I record as ‘progression’ spend?

A. We want to ensure that widening participation encompasses the whole student lifecycle. As part of this, we are interested in understanding how institutions support undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress beyond their course to employment or postgraduate study. This year we have therefore asked you to disaggregate between student success spend and progression spend. Progression spend could include measures such as internships or help with interview skills, or other activities which are designed to help disadvantaged students progress to employment or postgraduate study. As this may have previously been recorded as student success spend, we understand that your student success spend may reduce proportionately when progression spend is recorded separately.

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Q. Table 4 of the resource plan asks for our total expenditure on access, student success and progression, separately from only our OFFA-countable spend. What will this information be used for?

A. We are asking for an estimate of total spend in order to gain a better understanding of how your OFFA-countable expenditure fits within the wider context of your total spend.

Setting out your total expenditure on access, student success and progression allows you to demonstrate the breadth of your work in these areas, and helps us to understand the activities set out in your access agreement within this broader context.

We are collecting estimates of total expenditure for information purposes only. Therefore, while we may share this information with HEFCE, we will not publish total expenditure figures by institution, and OFFA and HEFCE will not hold institutions accountable to spend amounts outside of your access agreement.

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Q. When estimating my institution’s total expenditure on access, student success and progression, what assumptions should I make about changes to the student opportunity allocation I will receive in 2015-16 and beyond?

A. HEFCE’s grant letter from BIS, published in February, confirms government funding for HEFCE and for higher education for 2014-15. It also sets out indicative allocations for the financial year 2015-16. While overall HEFCE has indicated there will be a reduction in teaching funding in 2015-16, it has not yet announced whether there will be any changes to the SO allocation.

It is therefore for you to decide whether you wish to make any assumptions about reductions to student opportunity allocation for planning purposes. Where these assumptions affect the expenditure reported in your 2015-16 access agreement, please set out any assumptions you have made in Table 4 of your resource plan or in your access agreement.

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Students covered by access agreements

Q. Table 4 of the resource plan asks for the proportion of institutions’ total spend on access, student success and progression which uses OFFA-countable funding. What do you mean by OFFA-countable students?

A. Access agreements cover fee-regulated students and courses as set out in the Higher Education Act 2004 and cover ‘additional’ financial support, outreach and student success activities started after the introduction of variable fees in 2006.

Where we talk about students being from OFFA-countable groups or under-represented groups, we mean groups that are currently under-represented in higher education at the national level, rather than at a particular institution or course, including (but not limited to):

• people from low income backgrounds

• people from lower socio-economic groups

• people from low participation neighbourhoods

• some ethnic groups or sub-groups

• people who have been in care

• disabled people.

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Q. Can we count expenditure on postgraduate students in our access agreement? 

A. OFFA’s remit is limited to undergraduate students, and (with the exception of postgraduate ITT students). As such, you can’t count spend on supporting postgraduate students (e.g. through bursaries) in your access agreement. You can, however, include investment on encouraging disadvantaged students to progress to further study as part of your work on progression.

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Q. Should I include social work students and/or fifth year medical students in the access agreement?

A.  Social work degrees are covered by the legislation that introduced tuition fees and therefore should be included in your access agreement. More information about what social work students are entitled to.

Courses provided under NHS contracts are funded by the NHS and therefore should not be included in the access agreement – these include nursing, midwifery, allied health professions and medicine (year 5 onwards). Page 40 of the 2014-15 access agreement guidance states that students “in receipt of a non-means tested NHS bursary” should be excluded from access agreements; to clarify, this refers to those on courses provided under NHS contracts.

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Q. What impact will the recently-announced Government measures to modernise the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) from 2015-16 have on access agreements?

A. On 7 April 2014, the Government announced proposed a number of changes to DSA. The changes were set out in a Written Ministerial Statement by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science.

It will be for institutions to consider how to respond to the changes the Government has announced to DSA, including how to ensure that appropriate support and adjustments are in place to aid access, student success and progression for disabled students. Disabled students are an OFFA-countable group and so you may include spend that might previously have fallen under DSA in your access agreement. As with other access agreement spend institutions will want to target effectively and understand (through appropriate monitoring and evaluation) the impact of their spend.

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Q. Should we include School Direct trainee teachers in our access agreement?

A. Yes, non-salaried School Direct trainees are fee-regulated students and therefore should be included in your access agreement. When recording School Direct trainees in your resource plan, you should record them as Postgraduate ITT students using the drop down box to select this course type.

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Fees and fee levels

Q. What are the maximum fee caps for 2015-16?

A. The Government announced the student finance package for the 2015-16 academic year for students in England on 13 March. Maximum tuition charges and tuition loans will be maintained at 2014-15 levels in
2015-16. For full details see Student Support Information Note 01/05 produced by Student Finance England.

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Continuing students

Q. Do I need to include fee limits for continuing students in our access agreement?

A. You do not need to include your fee levels for continuing students in your access agreement for 2015-16 entry, but we ask for some details about continuing students in your resource plan. Your fees should be in line with what you advertised to students when they were accepted on their course.

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Q. Am I allowed to increase fees for continuing students in 2015-16 to allow for inflation?

A. Where you are currently charging below the maximum fee, OFFA will only allow fee increases (including increases in line with inflation) for continuing students in 2015-16 if your previous access agreement specifies that you intended to raise fees in this way.

If you are raising fees in line with inflation, we suggest you calculate this increase by using the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast for RPI-X (the retail price index, excluding mortgage interest payments). The RPI-X forecast for 2015-16 is 3.34 per cent.

We encourage you to consider carefully the wording in your 2015-16 access agreement, and other published materials, to ensure that potential applicants are clear about what fees they would be paying for the duration of their course, before they apply.

For further information, please see our March 2014 guidance note Fee caps and inflationary increases for 2015-16.

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Q. My institution is not planning on charging more than the basic fee for new entrants in 2015-16. However, our continuing students who started in previous years are being charged more than the basic fee. What happens now?

A. Please email enquiries@offa.org.uk to confirm you do not need a new access agreement to cover your 2015-16 entrants. However, those students who started in previous years will remain on the terms of your access agreements relating to those years. You will still be required to provide annual monitoring reports until these students have left your institution.

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Financial support

Q. My institution is not planning to charge higher fees for part-time students but has access measures aimed at part-time students. Can we include this in the expenditure we report to you?

A. Yes, you may include expenditure on access measures for part-time students regardless of whether you charge higher fees for part-time courses.

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Q. Am I allowed to record spend on hardship funds, previously funded through the Access to Learning Fund (ALF), in my 2015-16 access agreement?

A. From 2014-15, HEFCE will incorporate funding that was previously allocated for the ALF within the student opportunity fund. You should not include this funding within your access agreement commitments; however, if you wish to, you may include a commitment to provide additional hardship support for target groups within your access agreement and an estimate of the likely spend within your resource plan.

ALF has previously targeted students beyond OFFA’s remit including:

When recording spend in your access agreement please only include expenditure on OFFA-countable students.

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Q. Table 5 of the resource plan – Expenditure on financial support – asks us to report on ‘Student Choice’. What investment can be included here?

A. Where you intend to allow students to choose whether they wish to receive their student support in the form of a fee waiver, bursary or other in-kind award (or any combination of these), you should include this expenditure under ‘Student Choice’.  

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Good practice

Q. What is OFFA’s approach to flexible learning and two-year accelerated honours degrees?

A. We are keen to see institutions encourage wider access to their courses by responding to the different needs and circumstances of potential students. This includes offering flexible routes into higher education and innovative and responsive ways of studying – for example, two-year accelerated honours degrees.

The maximum fee cap beyond which no institution can charge in 2015-16 is £9,000 per year and this includes accelerated courses. However, when assessing your access agreement and your planned level of expenditure, we will take into account the reduced cost to students in taking two-year accelerated honours degrees and the potential of such degrees to attract students from under-represented groups.

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Outreach

Q. I want to target my institution’s outreach work as effectively as possible. Can you direct me to any advice/good practice on this?

A. HEFCE’s publication Higher education outreach: targeting disadvantaged learners gives guidance on effective ways to target outreach activities at people from communities under-represented in HE. It also includes a three-stage methodology to make targeting more effective. There are also Q&As on targeting disadvantaged learners on the HEFCE website. HEFCE plans to review its targeting guidance in 2014 to ensure that it is aligned with the priorities set out in the national strategy.

Action on Access’s Higher Education Progression Framework Guide (2008) sets out a model approach to prepare disadvantaged learners for higher education, engaging directly with schools in a sustained way. It aims to help institutions move beyond one-off WP interventions to a sustained, planned programme integrated with the activities of schools and colleges.

The Action on Access publications Social mobility through higher education topic briefing: the role of targeting and Aimhigher and engagement with the primary sector may also be useful to you.

The Higher Education Academy has published a toolkit on targeting outreach schemes which offers practical advice for practitioners.

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Q. Why is OFFA asking for information on long term outreach in 2015-16 access agreements?

A. In your 2015-16 access agreement we ask you to include information on long term outreach that you are involved with. OFFA believes that all institutions have a responsibility to engage in long term outreach with younger age groups, not just those who are already at the point of making decisions about post-16 study. This is because evidence strongly suggests that working with younger age groups over a sustained period will have a greater impact than one-off interventions. Although this may not directly affect your own student intake, it will help to support fair access to the wider HE sector.

We appreciate that it may be challenging to provide evidence of this work to begin with, so when we monitor your progress against targets we will always take any long term outreach into consideration.

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Q. My institution doesn’t do any work with younger age groups. What should I put in our access agreement?

If you currently do not do any work with younger age groups you should state this in your access agreement, and you may wish to include information about any programmes you plan to set up or become involved with in the future.

If you do not believe that working with younger age groups is appropriate for your institution we would be interested to understand why. For example, if your student population is mainly made up of part-time and/or mature students it may not be as relevant for you do work with younger age groups. In these circumstances it might be more appropriate to consider how you could better strengthen your outreach work with your local community and local employers.

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