Major changes to rules around what colleges and universities have to spend on widening participation are on the way.
Previously, higher education institutions charging more than £6,000 for courses had to establish an access agreement with the former Office for Fair Access (Offa).
Following a recent consultation, the Office for Students (OfS), the new higher education regulator, has said it will from 2019-20 no longer require colleges and universities to set aside a specific amount of money from their tuition fee income – currently between 15 and 30 per cent of income from tuition fees above £6,000 – to support students from under-represented or disadvantaged groups, such as those from low-income or BAME backgrounds, or care leavers.
The money can be spent on travel costs, staff costs for student services or direct cash support for these students.
'Focus on outcomes'
From September onwards, students who started courses in previous years will still be covered by access arrangements, but new students will not.
An OfS report published last month said: “We will not set a minimum expected level of expenditure. Our focus will be on the outcomes that providers achieve and the level of ambition they set, rather than inputs in the form of investment.
"We will challenge providers’ investment through our assessment of whether we believe their plans to be credible given the level of intended investment.”
Andy Ratcliffe, chief executive of education charity Impetus PEF, said the change was a “backwards step”. He added: “I am pleased that the OfS will expect universities to set tough targets for widening participation in higher education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But achieving those outcomes costs money, and the decision not to set a minimum level of expenditure is a backwards step.
“Progress in this area is already too slow, and this move opens the door for universities to cut expenditure on widening participation. If we want universities to be for the many and not the few, the government needs to step in and pledge to ensure vital outreach work is properly funded.”
Amatey Doku, vice-president for higher education at the NUS students’ union, said a focus on outcomes may be more impactful.
He added: “Universities should be required to spend at least some of the income from tuition fees on widening access – it’s unlikely we will be able to close the persistent gaps for disadvantaged students without significant investment. As regulator, the OfS should be responsible for ensuring this happens.
“However we do not believe that requiring a minimum level of spend would necessarily be the best way of achieving significant progress in closing access gaps. It’s essential that any new initiatives are impactful, and the best way to achieve this is through an evidenced-based, collaborative approach with students – not necessarily through setting an arbitrary fixed sum.”