Diversity charges for higher fees

Breaching £6,000 threshold will have access cost, Offa guidance says. Rebecca Attwood reports

March 10, 2011

Elite universities charging top tuition fees of £9,000 a year will be expected to spend as much as £1,000 per student on measures to improve the diversity of their student bodies, according to guidance published by the access watchdog.

The Office for Fair Access said this week that universities with very few poor students that are planning to set high fees from 2012-13 should spend about 30 per cent of the income gained from the portion of fees above the £6,000 threshold on access measures.

But institutions with diverse student bodies need spend only 15 per cent of their extra income on widening access, the guidance suggests.

All universities that want to charge more than £6,000 from 2012-13 must reach access agreements with Offa, setting out the measures they will take to encourage applications from under- represented groups, plus "stretching targets" to increase the diversity of their student bodies.

But Offa says it will only use the penalties available to it - imposing fines or withdrawing the right to charge more than £6,000 - if universities commit "serious and wilful" breaches of their access agreements.

"For example, this could apply if you charge higher fees than you set out in your agreement, fail to provide the financial support that you promised to students or fail to deliver the outreach and retention measures that you committed yourself to," says the guidance document, How to Produce an Access Agreement for 2012-13.

It goes on to state: "Although we are now more focused on the outcomes you achieve under your access agreement, we would not impose a sanction solely on the basis of you not meeting your targets."

Universities are being asked to put more of their money into outreach, which may mean moving some cash away from financial support for university students.

Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa, said selective universities had to work closely with schools and careers advisers to identify talented young people as early as possible.

But he added: "Fee waivers and bursaries are both legitimate ways of helping students. In my judgement, most universities will use a combination of the two."

Offa is also encouraging institutions to focus more on the outcomes of access work, improve dropout rates and target financial support for the most disadvantaged.

Universities wanting to charge more than £6,000 will also have to participate in the new National Scholarship Programme.

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, called the guidance "sensible".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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