A fair cause for celebration

March 18, 2005

The new support arrangements will ensure students are not deterred financially, insists Martin Harris

The diverse range of financial packages announced today represents a significant milestone in the evolution of student support.

It was always clear to me that the sector would vigorously continue to seek out those candidates with the aptitudes necessary to benefit from higher education. And I knew that every effort would be made to ensure that no one was deterred from seeking admission on financial grounds.

But others in Parliament and beyond needed reassurance, and thus the Office for Fair Access was born. Our intention from the start has been simple - we have sought, through frank dialogue with the sector and individual institutions, to ensure as generous a set of support arrangements as possible. All the while, we have respected the different starting points of the various universities and colleges, as well as former Education Secretary Charles Clarke's unambiguous advice that they should retain for their own purposes "the lion's share" of the additional resources raised from increased fees.

The outcome is diverse but overall very satisfying. It includes cash bursaries, scholarship schemes and subject-specific support.

This reflects our decision to rely as much as is practicable on the individual processes of strongly autonomous institutions with the minimum possible bureaucratic burden. It is for this reason that the credit must go the universities and colleges themselves.

It was predictable, in my view, that the combination of trust in the sector and a genuinely independent regulator in the form of Offa would lead to an outcome from which future students would gain. There is a very good story to tell that can be gleaned from reading the access agreements as a whole.

Our resolve not to interfere in university admissions has greatly reassured those who were cautious, and it is certainly clear from today's announcement that this has not impacted in any way on institutions'

determination to provide a range of measures to encourage applications from a diverse student population, regardless of personal circumstances.

But much remains to be done. The needs of part-time students - a key group in the widening participation agenda - must be addressed as a matter of urgency, while the special role played by colleges of further education in providing higher education to those who might otherwise not continue with their formal studies has to be taken into account.

Perhaps, most importantly, we will need to play a major role in evaluating what actually happens as the new regime of fees and student support takes effect during 2006.

I have absolutely no doubt that institutions will honour the promises they are this week making to future students. However, in the report I am required to make to Parliament, I will seek to establish whether enough is being done to help students who accept places in institutions that are committed to widening participation but do not gain enough new income from fees to provide the level of bursary that they would like.

This will be of central importance when the government of the day decides how to proceed after 2009.

But these issues lie in the future. Today, potential students and their parents should celebrate the scholarships and bursaries that colleges and universities are putting in place as their contribution to the fair access agenda.

These plans should go a very long way towards ensuring that no one is deterred on financial grounds from seeking the benefits that higher education undoubtedly brings.

Sir Martin Harris is director of the Office for Fair Access.

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