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Unis will no longer have to set aside money to support disadvantaged students

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Universities in England will no longer be required to set aside money to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Image credit: Discott 

The Office for Students, which regulates higher education in England, has said it will no longer require universities and other higher education institutions (which charge more than £6,000 per year) to spend part of the tuition fee income on access programmes for disadvantaged students.

An OfS report explained that the new focus would be "on the outcomes that providers achieve and the level of ambition they set, rather than inputs in the form of investment."

The move will affect students from disadvantaged or under-represented backgrounds, such as low-income or Black and Minority Ethnic students or care leavers, starting in the 2019/20 academic year.

Students who are currently on their course will not be affected.

The Office for Fair Access, which used to regulate access to higher education before it was merged into the OfS, previously required higher education institutions to set aside between 15 and 30 percent of income raised from tuition fees above £6,000 to fund access programmes as part of an access agreement.

This funding could have been spent on travel costs for disadvantaged students, the cost of providing support services or even as direct cash support.

In the wake of recent controversies over access to higher education, the announcement will likely cause consternation.

The Sutton Trust recently found that students from just 8 schools, mostly private schools charging eye-watering fees, were disproportionately more likely to go to Oxbridge than those from all other secondary schools.

Private school students can also sit easier GCSEs which students at state schools are not allowed to sit for, which critics warn gives them a leg up when it comes to applying for university places and jobs.

The announcement also comes as the government is rumoured to be considering a fee cap of £6,500 as part of the Augar Review into higher education funding.

Senior figures in the Conservative Party and the higher education sector have warned the government that the fee cap, widely seen as a response to the Labour Party's pledge to abolish tuition fees, would result in a drastic reduction in funding and the possible reintroduction of a cap in the number of university places if the government is unable or unwilling to make up the lost income, with a negative impact on social mobility.

However, Amatey Doku, NUS Vice-President for Higher Education, believes the move might be helpful. He said: 

“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 the 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."

More to follow

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