A draft copy of a guidance letter to the access watchdog shows that the coalition plans to make no changes to the organisation’s statutory powers.
The letter to the Office for Fair Access says that no university wanting to charge above £6,000 will be able to do so without coming to an agreement with Offa on the measures it must take to encourage applications from students from low-income homes.
However, all publicly funded providers of higher education in England seeking to charge tuition fees above the basic level already have to submit an access agreement to Offa for approval.
The letter also says the ultimate sanction available to Offa if a university fails to meet its agreement would be the same as at present – the power to impose a fine of up to £500,000 and to refuse to renew an access agreement. This would effectively withdraw the university’s right to charge fees above £6,000.
The current requirement for universities to offer a minimum bursary to students from low-income backgrounds will be dropped.
The new agreements would include a requirement to make progress towards targets each year, and the agreements would have to be renewed annually rather than every five years.
“We would not expect the overall proportion of tuition income devoted to access to fall,” the letter adds.
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, said: “David Willetts [the universities and science minister] is on another planet if he thinks that by telling universities to ‘do all they can’ on access that they will actually do so, particularly the elite institutions that have such a woeful record on access for under-represented students.
“Universities have an appalling past record on meeting access agreements and Offa has always been a weak and toothless regulator. In recent years, it has allowed universities to hugely under-spend their bursary budgets to the tune of tens of millions of pounds and has presided over the watering down and rewriting of access agreements that has left them being worth little more than the paper they are written on.
“The minister has made it clear that he will give no new powers to the regulator and has even warned it not to interfere to protect access.”
Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa, said the letter meant he would now be able to start discussions with the sector on the proposed new arrangements, which he claimed were “more demanding”.
“Once I have final guidance I will write to the sector, working with them to develop policies that promote access to higher education for all those with the potential to benefit, regardless of their background,” he said.