Access agreements and uncertainties

If universities want to charge more than £6,000 in yearly tuition fees, they have to outline how they intend to help attract disadvantaged students and improve social mobility.

The Office For Fair Access (OFFA) has today published guidance to universities on how to produce an ‘access agreement’. Access agreements set out the ways in which an institution would promote and improve student retention, student outreach, financial assistance, and other activities to benefit social mobility.

It seems that, even without any changes to the proposed fees system in coming years, it’s going to take a couple of runs through the process before we get a true picture of what’s happening.

photo by john curley
photo by john curley

Speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, OFFA’s director, Martin Harris, said that universities must prove what they promise to do ‘in retrospect’. While proposals must be ‘stretching and demanding’, this leaves universities with a largely free reign on how they want to proceed. For now.

Given the general flexibility so far allowed in creating access agreements, it’s no surprise that representative groups are positive. Paul Marshall, Executive Director of the 1994 Group said:

“By allowing universities to set their own widening participation benchmarks OFFA have recognised that each university has its own priorities, and will be best placed to set the most appropriate measures.”

Russell Group’s Wendy Piatt was equally upbeat:

“We welcome the fact that OFFA will be allowing universities some scope to set their own targets and milestones for access work, noting that ‘there is no single perfect measure of access performance’.”

Such open possibilities make it difficult to see how anyone will achieve an overall awareness of what will end up becoming necessary in the longer term. I strongly suspect that there will be alterations based on the first year or two, which will result in an even longer period before a manageable picture is revealed.

Will it ever be clear which aspects of the system really can help HE and student intake? Students and staff alike know they must jump through particular hoops to get from one place to another. The difference now is that the hoops have slightly changed and may change again.

Potential students can see they might suffer in terms of fees and repayments, but can they be certain at the same time that they’ll benefit from a more level playing field? Is there enough potential in the future to break down barriers and help young people in a more targeted fashion, even before the idea of university becomes an important life choice?

Unfortunately, we just don’t know. Social mobility has a long way to go. All universities play an important part in enhancing mobility. Therefore, it’s important to make sure there’s a limit to unnecessary exclusions that could have still played a helpful part. If these elements are removed prematurely due to lack of funds, improvements elsewhere will, at best, cause stasis, not growth.

At times like this, I often acknowledge the bumpy ride that’s ahead for anyone involved. But when is the road not bumpy? If it’s going to take several years before greater clarity can be achieved, it will probably be just in time for a new set of sweeping changes to come about.

Not everyone is having to tread water and there is plenty of opportunity for HE to shine further, but it would be foolish for me to say that any wide-ranging situation can ever experience a bump-free terrain.

Mission groups are mainly positive that access agreements won’t be a barrier to setting fees of their choosing. Future students are now aware that fees are likely to be a lot higher and they must choose based on new rules. Current developments expose the latest hurdle that needs crossing (or fighting). But the next hurdle will never be far away.

My analogy shouldn’t consist of a bumpy journey. It’s more like a bucking bronco ride. We stay on for as long as we can.

And if we fall off? Either jump back on or choose a different ride. Make of that what you will. I’m not sure I’ve worked it out yet…