The Office for Fair Access published guidelines this week on the access measures expected of universities charging tuition fees over £6000 when the new policy comes into force in 2012. The Coalition government has set an upper limit of £9000 on fees, but has left it to individual universities to choose what price to set for each of their courses.

The government, and in particular Nick Clegg, who has come under fire for his U-turn on tuition fees, promised that universities would only charge up to £9000 under “exceptional circumstances”, and that they would be deterred from doing so by extremely demanding requirements for improving access for underprivileged students. Yet these new guidelines, described as “toothless” by the Cambridge University Student Union, provide little reassurance for those concerned that poorer students are going to be priced out of higher education.

A sliding scale has been set for the percentage of fee income above £6000 that would have to be spent on access schemes and support for poorer students. The scale ranges from 15% to 30%, with those universities who attract a lower percentage of students from underprivileged backgrounds having to put a higher percentage of income towards improving their access measures.

So far, so good. But because this percentage also includes measures of financial support for poorer students, the sliding scale is a poorly thought-out system. Those universities who attract high numbers of poorer students will have a lower percentage set for scholarship and bursary financing, meaning that they may not have enough money to provide adequate funding for the numbers of underprivileged students they need to support!

It seems sensible to suggest that universities failing to attract enough lower income applicants should have to spend more on access schemes, but not that those with a high proportion of poorer students ought to be spending less on financial support for them.

A waste of money

Instead of setting clear and official measures that must be undertaken by universities attracting low numbers of poorer students, the guidelines are wishy-washy and vague, allowing for money to be allocated to “outreach projects” instead of bursaries that would go directly to the students who need them.

As universities will be allowed to choose themselves where to spend their access money within the list of proposed possibilities, this opens the door for thousands of pounds to be wasted on more access and outreach schemes such as those already in place at Oxford and Cambridge University that have been completely ineffectual in realistically improving the ratio of disadvantaged students taking up places.

Universities have been quick to point out that they are already taking access measures such as organising school talks and visits, with the Russell Group of top universities claiming that its members already spend £75 million a year on access projects. So in reality the impact here is likely to be a huge blow to access to university for underprivileged students as universities tighten their belts, making bursaries and grants less available, whilst money is poured into ineffectual but compulsory access outreach programs.

No targets or levels

Amazingly, OFFA will not be setting any specific access targets for universities to achieve in order to retain their high levels of tuition fees, nor will they even decide whether a university should be classed as having a high or low level of underprivileged students. The institutions will be able to decide “for themselves” which category they fall into and decide what funds ought to be allocated accordingly.
These are hardly the tough regulations Clegg promised to deter them from setting tuition fees at the highest possible levels and to “dramatically increase” the uptake of less advantaged students at the most prestigious universities.

A spokesperson for the 1994 group of research universities unsurprisingly “welcomed” the proposals, praising them for allowing universities to set “their own priorities”. So the government promises to force universities to prioritise access for underprivileged students as a requirement to offset the potentially devastating impact of raised tuition fees on poorer applicants seems to have fallen utterly by the wayside.

No Retribution

To make matters even worse, there are no stated definite ramifications for those universities failing to comply with the guidelines; with OFFA simply retaining the power to withdraw agreement for universities to continue charging fees above £6000 should they feel adequate access measures were not being taken. Small comfort, given that the body has had this power since its initial formation but never once used it in spite of shockingly low percentages of underprivileged students taking up places at our top universities. Then again, how could they impose sanctions and punishments on a system so malleable and toothless that it does not even have any stated targets or goals?

Regardless of the levels of fees they charge or access measures they take, with no set requirements for improving their access figures it will be impossible for universities to fail.

Economic consequences

The likely result of all this will be a surge in price, with many top universities in England choosing to set their tuition fees at the maximum limit of £9000. This will cause huge difficulties for the government, whose allocation of funds for student loan provision has been calculated on the basis of an average fee of £7500.

So once again, after decimating the chances of reaching higher education for those from the most underprivileged backgrounds and creating a tiered education system where the rich can pay and the poor miss out, the coalition government may even have created a scheme that costs far more money than it saves.