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

Target groups

Access agreements and OFFA’s remit concern students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups. These groups can include (but are not limited to):

All of these students face particular barries to access and participation in higher education. Our guidance does not provide an exhaustive list. Institutions should use their own data, and research to understand the issues that affect their student population. You should also refer to our annual strategic guidance, which provides further information relevant to specific years.

Further information on target groups

Low-income backgrounds

Our definition of ‘low-income background’ is based on household income and varies from year to year, in line with the government’s tiers for maintenance grants or loans.

Access agreement year ‘Low-income’ threshold (household income)
2017-18 £42,875
2016-17 £42,620
2015-16 £42,620
2014-15 £42,620
2013-14 £50,706
2012-13 £50,695
2011-12 £50,020
2010-11 £50,020
2009-10 £50,020
2008-09 £60,005
2007-08 £38,330
2006-07 £37,425

Students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) report Socio-economic, ethnic and gender differences in higher education participation (2015) shows that only around 10 per cent of White British males from the most disadvantaged backgrounds go into higher education; they are five times less likely to enter higher education than the most advantaged White males, and less likely to enter higher education than males from all other ethnic groups. Institutions should consider how they might ensure that this group is targeted through access work. 

While working to support access for white males from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, it is important to understand that socio-economic disadvantage affects all groups. For example UCAS data (UCAS, 2015 End of Cycle Report (2015)) showed that White British females eligible for free school meals are the second least likely group to progress to higher education. The Social Mobility Advisory Group’s final report (Working in partnership: enabling social mobility in higher education (2016)) reinforces the message that socio-economic disadvantage continues to be the most significant driver of inequality in terms of access to and outcomes from higher education, regardless of ethnicity or gender.

We expect institutions to consider how they might better support this group. This may include evaluating existing provision to identify how you are currently working with this group and developing an existing programme or creating a new initiative in order to target this group. Institutions should consider whether they are providing outreach interventions at key decision points and how they can involve parents and the community in outreach work.

Related guidance

Topic briefing on White British students from low socio-economic status groups

Black and minority ethnic groups

There is evidence to show that there are differences at every stage of the student lifecycle in the experiences of students from different ethnic backgrounds.

Analysis of the latest data published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) shows significant variations in degree outcome for students from different ethnicities despite achieving the same entry qualifications. In addition, research from the Department for Education (Statistics: destinations of key stage 4 and key stage 5 pupils (2017)) indicates that some ethnic groups – especially Black Caribbean and White – are significantly less likely to attend higher tariff institutions than other ethnicities. Analysis by HEFCE (Differences in employment outcomes (2016)) also shows that there are unexplained disparities in the progression of different ethnic groups from undergraduate study to employment (including professional employment) and further study.

We expect all institutions to use their own internal data to explore whether there are differences across the student lifecycle by ethnicity and other protected characteristics, and to demonstrate how they will look to address any differences identified.

Related guidance

Topic briefing on BME students

Ongoing OFFA research project into the targeting of activities at young people from disadvantaged and under-represented ethnic groups

Mature students

‘Mature students’ in the context of access agreements normally refers to those aged 21 or over when they enter higher education. Institutions may wish to use alternative definitions, for example aged 25 or over; the definition you use should be made clear in your access agreement.

These people are more likely than younger learners to have characteristics associated with disadvantage and under-representation in higher education. Research by MillionPlus highlights that mature learners are more likely than younger learners to:

When writing your access agreement you should consider the different barriers mature learners may face in accessing, succeeding in, and progressing from higher education. All institutions have a responsibility to consider how they might work to support mature students. This might include offering alternative and flexible modes of study or providing additional information, advice and guidance to mature students. Your plans may include working with communities and employers.

The Office for National Statistics forecasts a decline in the number of 18- and 19-year-olds until around 2020, and attracting older students may help you make further progress on widening participation and fair access.

Related guidance

Topic briefing on mature learners

Part-time students and flexible learning

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency in January 2017 showed that there has been a 58 per cent reduction in UK-domiciled part-time undergraduate entrants since 2010-11. This is a deeply worrying trend which has seen drastic year-on-year reductions in people choosing to study part-time.

We are concerned about the issues this decline raises for inclusion, equality and diversity. Disadvantaged young students are twice as likely to study part-time compared to the most advantaged. Part-time learners are also more likely to be women, and more likely to be mature learners.

It is critical that as a sector we work to reverse this decline. We understand that the reduction in part-time students will have affected some institutions more than others. However, given the particular equality and diversity implications, we believe all institutions have a responsibility to consider how they might work to support part-time learners.

You may include expenditure on access measures for part-time students in your access agreement regardless of whether you charge higher fees for part-time courses.

We strongly encourage you to consider what more you can do to attract and support part-time learners across the whole student lifecycle. As well as part-time study, we encourage you to think about how you might develop other flexible higher education study options that meet the needs of students and employers. This includes offering flexible routes into higher education, and innovative and responsive ways of studying – for example, two-year accelerated honours degrees.

When assessing your access agreement and expenditure plans, we will take into account the potential of such provision to attract students from under-represented groups, and the reduced cost to students of accelerated degrees.

Related guidance

It may help you to consider the recommendations about encouraging and supporting part-time study in Universities UK’s report The power of part-time and HEFCE’s Higher Education in England 2015 analysis.

The Action on Access briefing Social Mobility through Higher Education: Flexible Learning examines how different types of flexible learning can help to widen access and improve success for under-represented groups.

Care leavers

Department for Education statistics show that only about 6 per cent of young people who are in care aged 16 continue into higher education by the age of 19. Care leavers are therefore a severely under-represented group and improving access for care leavers remains an important priority.

People who have spent time in local authority care face cumulative and significant barriers to entering higher education including:

We encourage you to highlight any access, student success and progression activity for care leavers throughout your access agreement and in your targets and milestones. We are particularly keen to hear about support for care leavers in the following areas:

You may include the costs of these activities in your access agreement. We encourage you to develop your provision based on the principles of the Buttle UK Quality Mark framework or a similar standard. We are happy to discuss any proposed measures in advance of you submitting your agreement if you would find this helpful (contact your institution’s key policy adviser).

We strongly encourage you to target and provide support and services to these students across all stages of the student lifecycle. We would be interested to hear of any support you offer care leavers, and encourage you to highlight any activities for care leavers throughout your agreement and in your targets and milestones.

With the phasing out of the Buttle UK Quality Mark for Care Leavers from July 2014, we want institutions to continue to build on their work – both individually and collaboratively – to support care leavers through their access agreements.

What state support is available for care leavers?

The Government acknowledges the problems that looked after children face in accessing higher education. Under the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, care leavers starting a recognised higher education course may be entitled to a minimum one-off bursary of £2,000 from their local authority. This is in addition to anything else care leavers receive under the state support system of grants and loans.

Related guidance and resources

Topic briefing on care leavers

The National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL) provides higher education activities and resources for care leavers, children in care and those who support them.

The Buttle Trust UK, Buttle UK Quality Mark evaluation report, 2013, which makes a series of recommendations to improve levels of support across all institutions, and the Buttle UK framework which provides a structure and guidance on developing support.

The JISCMail Care Leavers in HEI network

Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, Using admissions to bridge the gap for care leavers, 2015


Research by Carers Trust and the University of Nottingham shows that young adult carers often struggle in higher education because of their caring responsibilities. The issues facing young carers include a lack of recognition of their support needs and problems accessing essential services.

We encourage you to consider the services you provide to support young carers and how these might align with or be strengthened through access agreements

Disabled students

There are particular barriers to access, student success and progression for disabled students, some of which vary depending on students’ specific impairments or needs. In light of the Government’s changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA), it is particularly important to ensure that students receive accurate information from institutions about the support they can expect to receive and we would like to see more activity and support being developed across the student lifecycle, taking into consideration the different needs of students with different disabilities.

We also encourage more institutions to set specific targets relating to mental health issues, specific learning difficulties and/or students on the autism spectrum. 

Institutions have an obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students. We support and encourage institutions to go above and beyond meeting their basic legal requirements in order to promote access, student success and progression for disabled students.

Related guidance

Topic briefing on disability

OFFA guidance note on changes to DSA (includes guidance on what expenditure you may include in your access agreement in response to the DSA changes)


Page last updated: 9 February 2017