All universities that want to charge annual undergraduate tuition fees of more than £6,000 from 2012-13 need to reach an access agreement with the Office for Fair Access.
The agreement will set out the measures the university will take to encourage applications from students from under-represented groups and will detail “stretching targets” to increase the diversity of their student body.
But Offa says it will use the penalties available to it – imposing a fine or withdrawing a university’s right to charge more than £6,000 – only if a university commits “a serious and wilful” breach of its access agreement.
“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 continues: “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 or milestones.”
However, the watchdog will decide whether a university’s targets are ambitious enough and it has also set guidelines on the sums of money universities should spend on measures to boost access.
Universities with the fewest students from poor backgrounds and that perform poorly against benchmarks will be asked to spend the most – about 35 per cent of the additional income they receive from the portion of their fee that is above the £6,000 threshold.
For a university charging the maximum fees of £9,000, this will mean spending £1,050 per student on access measures.
Universities with a diverse student body will be expected to spend about 15 per cent of fee income above £6,000.
Offa is also asking universities to put more money into outreach – measures designed to raise aspirations and attainment and encourage applications from those in under-represented groups – which may mean that some universities choose to spend less on financial support.
Access agreements will be approved annually and progress on targets will be examined each year.
Sir Martin Harris, director of fair access, said the sector must get the message across that the new higher tuition fees did not have to be paid upfront.
“We are now entering uncharted territory and none of us can predict exactly how the new higher fees will affect student behaviour. There is a real risk that disadvantaged students in particular will start to feel they cannot afford to go to university,” he warned.