England’s new regulator has proposed allowing English higher education providers that are hitting their widening participation targets to go as long as five years without submitting a new access agreement, in a significant shift away from the current system of annual negotiations.
The Office for Students said that a longer cycle of between three and five years would allow institutions to set “more ambitious” targets with “greater flexibility to adapt activities as a result of evaluation”, while allowing the watchdog to “focus more on those providers where risk or gaps are greatest, and where their strategy does not appear to be making progress”.
Under existing rules established by the OfS’ predecessor organisation in this area, the Office for Fair Access, providers must have access agreements setting out their activities aimed at widening participation and ensuring student success approved annually if they want to charge higher-level fees of up to £9,250.
However, Offa never rejected a plan and the approach was criticised in the past for failing to achieve swift enough progress towards equality. The OfS has a much wider range of powers, which it could impose on providers that underperformed on widening access, including the ability to levy fines.
According to proposals published by the regulator on 7 September, access plans would automatically roll over annually, for up to five years, unless the OfS informs a provider that it needs to submit a new set of proposals.
“We would not normally expect a provider to be asked to resubmit its APP within the first year after submission,” the OfS proposals say. “The intended effect is that, subject to the OfS’ monitoring and risk assessment each year, most plans would normally remain in place for a period of three years or more.”
Progress would be monitored each year through institutional data and through impact reports produced by institutions, setting out progress against their targets.
Providers that are judged to be falling short could be required to submit a new access plan, subject to “enhanced monitoring”, or could have conditions attached to their OfS registration requiring improvements.
The OfS proposal is likely to be supported by many in the sector; in a survey of providers reported by the OfS, only 15 per cent of respondents supported sticking with annual negotiations. Twenty-six per cent felt that they should be submitted every two years, while 57 per cent felt that they should be submitted every three years or more.
Chris Millward, the director of fair access and participation, said that universities had told him that they would be able to make more progress if they were allowed to operate more strategically.
“So we are laying down the gauntlet to them,” Mr Millward told Times Higher Education. “If you are ambitious and successful in making progress, then we will give you up to five years, in terms of the cycle of plans. But if you are not ambitious enough, we will have to have much more frequent plans.”
Another element of the OfS’ proposals, which are being consulted on, is to introduce a range of sector-wide aims that all providers would be required to set targets for, a shift from the current approach under which different providers target progress in different areas.
Areas in which all universities might be required to set targets include entry rates for the poorest students compared with the most privileged students, dropout rates, and the gap in attainment between black and white undergraduates.
Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, described the OfS consultation as “an important step in ensuring a more strategic and joined-up approach”.