Declawing OFFA

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Today sees the much trailed publication of the “guidance letter” to the Office of Fair Access regarding institutional access agreements and the right to charge amounts above the basic level of fees. In this post I am comparing this new guidance to the initial guidance offered in October 2004. I’m ignoring the draft letter of last year, and David Lammy’s letter of 2009.

Many ministers, in particular David Willets, have previously described the process of getting agreement for higher fees as becoming more arduous, with the expectation that the full £9,000 fee will be charged only in exceptional circumstances. In his ministerial statement, today, he says:

“The guidance to the Director sets out significantly increased expectations for the priority that institutions should be giving to fair access and widening participation, focusing more sharply on the outcomes of outreach and other activities, and less on the inputs and processes. In particular the government believes that progress over the last few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities has been inadequate, and that much more determined action now needs to be taken

It is important to remember that the acceptance of an Access Agreement is, and always has been, analogue not digital. By this I mean that either an institution has an approved agreement and can charge up to the higher level of fees (soon to be £9,000), or it does not and can charge only the basic amount (£6,000). There is no middle ground where an institution can only charge up to £7,500 for a less impressive agreement. It’s all or nothing.

So how are OFFA to keep fees away from the maximum?

(para 1.7, 2011) “We have consistently said that we believe graduate contributions of £9,000 should apply only in exceptional circumstances. Institutions would need to charge considerably less than this to offset reductions in HEFCE funding, and higher charges impose higher costs for the public purse because of generous subsidies in the loan system. […] It is of course not within your legal powers to impose any quota for how many institutions charge what level of graduate contribution […] But if the sector as a whole appear to be clustering their charges at the upper end of what is legally possible […] we will have to reconsider what powers are available, including changes to legislation, to ensure there is a differentiation in charges. We intend to keep this under very close review for 2012/13.”

That’s it. If every institution (as they do currently) successfully has their access agreement approved, there is no way they can be prevented from charging the maximum fee level. And the government has said nothing beyond keeping things under review. This is shameful.

(incidentally – institutions would need to charge about £8,000 to replicate their governmental income with respect to student tuition. This includes the current HEFCE grant and current fees. Lovely little slight of hand there.)

So given this, you would expect a substantially beefier set of requirements for access agreement approval.

The 2004 letter handily offers a set of minimum requirements for an access agreement:

(para 5.1, 2004)

The 2011 letter explicitly does not:

(para 5.1, 2011)
Judgements on the details of these requirements in individual circumstances are for you to make as Director of Fair Access. At this stage, and in accordance with current arrangements, we are not proposing any minimum requirement in this area”

(in accordance with current arrangements they say… hmmm….)

Okay, so maybe it’s all about the big stick. Surely this new guidance will beef up the sanctions that OFFA can make for institutions that don’t play by the rules (whatever the rules turn out to be). From a 2004 starting point:



So, we’ve got a refusal to renew (which would mean that they couldn’t, legally, charge higher fees without some comeback), suspension of the relevant part of the main HEFCE grant, and a small punative fine. For a beefed up measure you would want to maybe look at degree awarding power suspension rather than grant suspension (especially given the grant cut) and a larger fine. You’d also expect that there would be something in the 2011 letter to cover institutions no longer in receipt (or never in receipt) of HEFCE grants. 

But instead:

(2011, para 7.1) “The major sanction available to you is not to approve or renew an Access Agreement, when it is reviewed each year. This would remove the institution’s right to charge its students above the basic level. You also have available to you sanctions should an institution breach or fail to deliver its access agreement, viz:


to impose a fine (via the funding body) of a maximum of £500,000


to require restitution if students have been disadvantaged or commitments have not been honoured.”

At best, this is the same deal as currently – except that they seemingly no longer have the option to reduce a grant from HEFCE.  And the non-approval of an Access Agreement… how would this affect a HE degree-awarding institution that is not in receipt of HEFCE funding, for example an entirely private institution, or an arts college? Such a situation has not been considered in this document, surprisingly as this was one of the hopes around the expansion of the availability of degree awarding powers.

And has the maximum fine been adjusted for inflation since 2004 – no it has not. 

You’ve probably guessed by now that this isn’t the document we were hoping for, and it isn’t the document we were promised. But it is worse than that – this document has actually taken away the minimum access standards set out in 2004, and has not updated the sanctions available to OFFA to suit a new model of Higher Education funding.

Questions should be asked. 

This is not a document about widening access, it is a document about cutting state funding for Higher Education. And it doesn’t even do that very well.



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