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UK: A snapshot picture of widening participation and questions for the future

This month brought an update in England on institutional efforts to ‘walk the talk’ on widening access to English higher education amongst low-income and other under-represented groups. Specifically, on 29 September, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) released its fourth annual monitoring report on this topic, under the title Access Agreement and Widening Participation Strategic Assessment Monitoring. For the first time ever, OFFA produced its findings jointly with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Overall, the statistics, which relate to the 2009/10 academic year, indicate that

  • the percentage of “additional fee income” that English universities and colleges spent on access measures held steady from the previous reporting year, around 25%;
  • financial support is increasingly aimed at the very poorest amongst the target groups (with 75% of the financial support delivered through access agreements going to students from the lowest income bracket); and
  • some 77% of institutions met or exceeded their targets relating to the applicants or entrants they managed to attract from amongst the target groups.

Funding and access are closely connected in England. In 2009/10, the basic fee in English colleges and universities was GBP 1 285 (EUR 1 477), while the maximum higher fee allowed was GBP 3 225 (EUR 3 707). “Additional fee income” was considered to be any amount earned by institutions beyond the basic fee. The right to charge anything beyond the basic fee in 2009/10 was allowed only if an institution had an approved access agreement on file with OFFA, setting out the access measures (e.g. outreach or financial support) that these institutions would put in place. Furthermore, English institutions that received HEFCE funding and enrolled more than 100 (directly funded) full-time equivalent students also needed to submit in June 2009 widening participation strategic assessments, which described the institutions’ commitments to widening participation (WP) as outlined in their missions, and clarified their strategic aims and objectives in this area.

OFFA and HEFCE strike fairly optimistic notes in this report, but employ a cautionary tone, as well – particularly given that nearly a quarter of the institutions covered by the report failed to meet their statistical targets for WP in 2009/10. More importantly, both organisations note that there are many unanswered questions about how the WP agenda may fare as England’s major funding and finance reforms settle into place as from 2012/13.

Office for Fair Access

Higher Education Funding Council for England