More than two-thirds of UK higher education institutions have been pushed to go further and faster on access for poorer students as “stretching” targets are introduced across the sector.
Statistics from the Office for Fair Access reveal that, of the 121 higher education institutions whose access agreements were approved on 16 July, 83 had been told that their initial submissions were not ambitious enough.
Last year, fewer than one in four HEIs – 28 of 123 – had to enter into negotiations with Offa before their agreements were signed off.
Les Ebdon, the director of fair access to higher education, told Times Higher Education that it had been a “tough” round of negotiations which had left some university leaders “bruised”.
This year was the first since 2011 that Offa had asked institutions to significantly review their targets, with Professor Ebdon arguing that the removal of undergraduate number caps meant that there was no excuse for lack of ambition among universities, particularly highly selective ones.
The agreements cover the 2016-17 academic year and, for the first time, Offa has set sector-wide targets on admissions, alongside its long-standing focus on applications.
But Professor Ebdon praised universities for their response to Offa’s challenge. Following the negotiations, 78 agreed to set more ambitious targets and 23 increased their proposed level of spending, by a total of £10.7 million.
With access agreements having also been approved for 62 further education colleges that offer higher education courses, Offa said that institutions were now on course to hit its target of doubling the entry rate of students from poorer areas by 2019-20.
“There is no question whatsoever that these were real and challenging negotiations and that we are determined to deliver on the strategy which we have outlined, and that means we are going to need significant contributions from across the sector but particularly from highly selective institutions,” Professor Ebdon said.
“I believe that the abolition of the student number cap gives us the opportunity to really move forward with that agenda but I wouldn’t want to leave anyone in any doubt that the challenge [from Offa] has been very real.”
In their 2016-17 agreements, universities and colleges estimate they will spend £750.8 million annually on widening participation, compared with £735.2 million the previous year.
This 2.1 per cent increase is smaller than the 3.9 per cent rise predicted in last year’s agreements, and also represents a smaller proportion of sector-wide income from fees above £6,000: 24.7 per cent, down from 25.4 per cent.
Professor Ebdon - who was recently reappointed to his role - said he was “entirely happy” with this situation, arguing that the focus should be on spending “smarter”, not spending more.
Investment in financial support such as scholarships will continue to decrease, reducing by 3.2 per cent to £399 million, reflecting research that found that neither the availability nor the size of a bursary had a discernible impact on whether a student from a poor background would finish a course or not.
Spending is shifting towards outreach and initiatives designed to improve student achievement and retention, with the total outlay in this area increasing by 8.9 per cent, to £351.9 million.
Professor Ebdon described the finalised agreements as “stretching and ambitious” but added that it “shouldn’t always be taken for granted” that all universities would get approval, and would therefore be allowed to charge more than £6,000.
Offa will be “keeping a close eye on monitoring progress”, he added.
The Offa data also reveal that University College Birmingham is now the only one of the 121 HEIs that says it will not charge at least £9,000 for at least some of its courses in 2016-17.
More than one in three universities, 47, will charge the maximum fee for all of their programmes. A further 54 will charge between £8,800 and £9,000. Overall, average fees will increase from £8,844 in 2015-16 to £8,891 in 2016-17.
The biggest year-on-year increase in average fees will be at the University of Huddersfield, which will charge £8,944 in 2016-17, up from £8,164 the previous year.