Today the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, and the Minister for Higher Education, David Willets, wrote to the Director of the Office for Fair Access (OfFA) to outline government expectations of access agreements under the new fees regime.
The new fees system comes into effect in 2012, but institutions only have until the beginning of April 2011 to produce their new access agreements and have these approved by OfFA.
OfFA will be producing guidance for institutions on what to include in their access agreements within the next few weeks. NUS will also be producing guidance for unions on engaging with your institution in writing and scrutinising access agreements.
Access agreements have been in place, and monitored by OfFA, since 2004. The government has said it wants institutions that charge over £6000 in tuition fees to adhere to strict new access regulations.
This means that only institutions who charge over £6000 in fees will be subject to an access agreement.
The letter to OfFA included guidance on use of contextual data in admissions, a focus on outreach activity rather than bursary spending, and the use of five-year access targets which institutions would be expected to show progress towards.
Access agreements will also be updated annually, rather than every five years.
While there is some material to welcome in the guidance from BIS, there is also much of concern. OfFA has not been given any more power to enforce access agreements. If an institution does not meet its target, nothing much will happen under these regulations.
The government also released details of the new National Scholarship Programme (NSP), a scheme that distributes money to institutions to spend on things like fee waivers, bursaries and accommodation discounts for the poorest students. NUS believes the NSP to be weak, confusing and ineffectual.
In particular, it will provide funding for only a very small proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students will not know when they apply whether they will have access to funding.
This means that the existence of the programme is unlikely to have any influence on whether a student chooses to apply to university or not, making it wholly inappropriate as a widening participation initiative.