Universities will be told next week that they face a March 2005 deadline to reveal their plans for bursaries, perks and outreach schemes for students in 2006.
Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, will publish a 20-page booklet next Monday spelling out how the new regulatory regime will work. He will explain how soon universities will be expected to lodge their access agreements with Offa and give the first indication of how quickly he will respond. But concerns remain that student applicants may be confused about the key financial information as they consider their degree options next year.
The Times Higher has learnt that universities that submit their access agreements to Offa between November 8 and January 4 will receive a "guaranteed" response from Sir Martin by March 11. Institutions that submit their agreements for approval between January 5 and March 18 will receive an answer "on a comparable timescale" - about two months later. If universities submit agreements after March 18, they would need to demonstrate "exceptional circumstances". Without Sir Martin's approval, universities will not be permitted to introduce variable tuition fees of up to £3,000 from 2006.
But Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group of research universities, said he was concerned about the impact on university prospectuses - which will be printed during the Christmas and new year holiday period.
"I don't think the overall timescale will be a problem - this is something we've all been preparing for," Professor Sterling said. "But what is a problem is that our prospectuses will go to press in January - there's no way of delaying or stopping that until institutions receive approval from Offa. So there will have to be caveats put into prospectuses."
Professor Sterling added: "I think that one will still have to be positive about bursaries, fees and scholarships, but prospectuses will have to have something in the small print that says this is subject to variation and the approval of Offa."
An Offa spokeswoman said: "Universities and colleges have already done a great deal towards widening participation, but there is still more to do.
The sector must continue to do all it can to safeguard fair access to higher education. Offa is committed to working with institutions to help them do this. This document, which builds on the letter of statutory guidance from the Secretary of State and the work of the Department for Education and Skills, provides guidance to institutions wishing to produce access agreements and will provide a sound basis for the whole sector to move forward."
The access agreement for each institution will be published on the Offa website about three weeks after they have been approved by Sir Martin.
The guidance booklet will include a "checklist" of information that Offa will expect to see in universities' access agreements: including details about bursaries, outreach projects and the "milestones" institutions set themselves for attracting more working-class students.
Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, last week revealed that he was setting up a system that would allow universities to contest Offa decisions. In a letter of government guidance to Sir Martin, Mr Clarke also emphasises that universities will not be penalised if they fail to meet their own milestones for enrolling more students from poor backgrounds.
Sir Martin Harris publishes Offa guidance and timetable
November 8 - January 4
If universities submit access plans to Offa between these dates they are "guaranteed" to receive a response by March 11
January 5 to March 18
If universities submit access plans to Offa between these dates they are "guaranteed" to receive a response "on a comparable timescale" - so within two months
After March 18
Offa will accept access agreements from universities after the deadline in "exceptional circumstances".