6 Widening participation in higher
180. The terms 'access' or 'fair access' and
'widening participation' are commonly used almost interchangeably,
to refer to the aspiration of increasing the proportion of students
from under-represented groups entering and completing higher education.
Professor Colin Riordan of Universities UK drew the following
distinction between them:
Fair access is whether what you might call elite
universities are really open to all. [
] Widening participation
is the activity generally in the sector of reaching out to students
who just have not gone to higher education. 
181. The term 'under-represented groups' is also
often used in this context. While is most commonly refers to students
from lower-income backgrounds, who may have attended schools with
generally lower attainment rates at A-level, it also includes
disabled and mature students, care leavers, and students from
minority ethnic backgrounds. As the National Forum for Lifelong
Learning Networks cautions in its written evidence to the Committee:
Care should be taken not to identify potential learners
in terms of their economic status alone; this is very significant
of course but ambitions to widen participation should be not be
limited to those learners entitled to free school meals.
182. There is a consensus that improving access
and widening participation are worthwhile investments which brings
private benefits to the graduate, as well as socio-economic benefits
to the UK by increasing tax revenue from graduates (who generally
earn more, and thus pay more tax over their career than non-graduates),
promoting social mobility and ensuring that employers have access
to the largest possible pool of highly-qualified and skilled graduates.
As the University Alliance said:
With 80% of new jobs in high-skill areas it is vital
that we have a system that enables all those who have the ambition
and ability to succeed at university.
Funding widening participation
183. Both the Higher Education Funding Council
for England and the Office for Fair Access oversee the efforts
of universities in relation to widening participation. Funding
for this work is allocated by HEFCE though the block teaching
grant. In 2010-11, HEFCE allocated a total of £372.7 million
to institutions for:
- the additional costs for outreach
activity to raise aspirations and attainment among potential students
from under-represented groups (£130.3 million);
- to assist with the costs of
supporting those students with disabilities (£13.2 million);
- to improve student retention
rates (£229.2 million).
This funding is provided as part of the block teaching
grant and was "protected" in the recent cost-saving
exercise. The Minister told us that universities would have £407
million in 2012-13 to spend on access and outreach work, which
would rise to over £600 million per year by 2015-16.
184. In 2007, HEFCE guidance on effective ways
to target outreach activities stated that "as a principle":
Resources should be targeted at learners with the
potential to benefit from higher education who come from under-represented
communities. Overwhelmingly these learners are from lower socio-economic
groups (groups 4-8 in the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification,
NS-SEC), and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who live in
areas of relative deprivation where participation in HE is low.
185. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is an
independent public body that helps safeguard and promote fair
access to higher education. OFFA validates, approves and monitors
universities 'access agreements'. Under the current system this
includes the monitoring of universities bursaries schemes which
they are required to offer to students from families with an income
of below £25,000 per year. The minimum bursary for 2010-11
was £329, although institutions were responsible for determining
their own bursary regime and many offered much higher awards.
The average bursary in 2010-11 was £900.
However, the Government is proposing to replace this compulsory
bursary with a National Scholarship Programme, which we consider
later in this section.
186. The current system of outreach and financial
support offered by higher education institutions was subject to
a review by OFFA. The research was conducted in 2010 and demonstrated
that the current activity, while well-intentioned, was not achieving
the desired outcomes. The research concluded that:
- The introduction of bursaries
has not influenced the choice of university for disadvantaged
- Applications from disadvantaged young people
have not changed in favour of universities offering higher bursaries.
- Disadvantaged young people have not become more
likely to choose conditional offers from universities offering
- Since bursaries were introduced most of the increase
in the participation of disadvantaged young people has been in
universities offering lower bursaries.
187. From 2012, OFFA will play a more central
role in improving access. Each institution wishing to charge annual
tuition fees above £6,000 must agree an access agreement
with OFFA, setting out what it will spend and the measures it
will take to improve access, measured against targets specific
to each institution (depending on the university's existing success
in attracting and retaining students from under-represented groups).
OFFA will the power to impose financial sanctions on institutions
which fail to meet their agreed access targets or fail to deliver
the support they agreed to provide without good reason. These
financial sanctions can include asking HEFCE to withhold up to
£500,000 of the institution's teaching grant, or refusing
to grant permission for it to charge tuition fees above £6,000.
188. In assessing these targets OFFA has recommended
that institutions with the lowest proportion of students from
under-represented groups should invest around 30% of their fee
income over £6,000 on measures to improve access. Institutions
with average or higher proportions of students from under-represented
groups may assign a smaller proportion of income, between 22.5%
or 15%. However, OFFA made clear that the suggested proportions
were "not precise minimums" and that "the purpose
of access agreements is to deliver progress in respect of access
and student retention, not to secure a precise amount of money
to this end".
189. Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education
Policy Institute welcomed the expenditure on access and widening
participation but he was sceptical that it would, in the long
term, be an effective system:
What we have is OFFA being told that they have to
insist that universities spend a higher and higher proportion
of the fees that they get from these students explicitly on activity
that is not going to benefit those students; it is going to benefit
future generations of students, and perhaps not even that.
He also argued that it was both "unfair and
a pity" that funding for widening participation came from
students through a higher fee and not through Government from
190. There is also a concern that a requirement
to spend a specified proportion of fee income on access and retention
measures may create an incentive for institutions seeking to replace
lost teaching-grant funding with fee income to charge even higher
tuition fees to incorporate this required spend on access. The
result of this is that the costs of widening participation are
passed on to students (or more accurately, to graduates once they
begin repaying their loans). Furthermore, it risks raising fees
further and potentially discouraging the very students the spending
on widening participation is intended to attract. 
191. An alternative approach to funding was offered
by Professor Barr. He proposed that:
For equity reasons, there should be a pupil premium
payable for each disadvantaged student, independent of university.
The premium could be paid to the university as additional income,
creating an incentive to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds,
or to the student acting as a scholarship by paying a fraction
of fees upfront.
192. We are concerned that
efforts to fund wider participation through a proportion of tuition
fees will not achieve the Government's objectives in this area.
Widening participation in higher education has an important impact
on future economic prosperity and therefore is worthy of public
investment. We therefore recommend that the Government reconsider
funding this activity through a programme similar to the 'pupil
premium'. This could reduce headline tuition fees, and consequently
also reduce the size of student loans and improve repayment rates.
National Scholarship Programme
193. The Government also proposes to introduce
a new National Scholarship Programme (NSP) as a replacement to
compulsory bursaries. The Government has undertaken to contribute
£50m to the NSP in the financial year 2012-13, with a £100m
contribution in 2013-14, and £150m in 2014-15. Institutions
charging above £6,000 will have to match fund any Government
The Department went on to say that participation in the new National
Scholarship Programme is mandatory for universities wishing to
charge over £6,000.
194. According to HEFCE the NSP will:
- It will provide a direct benefit
to individual, eligible students.
- Each eligible student will receive a benefit
of not less than £3,000 (full-time and pro rata part-time
to a minimum intensity of 25 per cent). This is a one-year benefit,
not a recurrent, annual entitlement.
- No more than £1,000 of the overall award
is to be provided as a cash bursary.
- The programme will not to be used to fund outreach
programmes, which universities will continue to fund through alternative
- The Government's contribution to the programme
will be £50 million in financial year 2012-13, £100
million in 2013-14 and £150 million from 2014-15.
- It is expected that those institutions wishing
to charge above the 2012-13 basic fee level of £6,000 who
are required to submit an access agreement to the Office for Fair
Access (OFFA) will provide a matched contribution to the programme
of at least the same value as the government contribution.
195. The NUS, million+ and others have expressed
concerns about the proposed National Scholarship Programme, particularly
that the match-funding requirement will be most onerous on those
institutions with a higher proportion of under-represented students,
and that awards from the fund are at the discretion of individual
institutions, rather than an objective entitlement.
196. Furthermore, the NUS warned that as the
bursary awards under the National Scholarship Programme would
be made after a successful application, the programme "will
do nothing to influence the application behaviours of the students
it is designed to target".
This point of view was shared by Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton
We are concerned at the speed at which that programme
has been put together. We are also concerned that it is going
to break down into 100 different schemes, effectively, with individual
universities running them, which does not seem to us be something
that is going to be persuasive to someone who is doubtful about
continuing education. We are also concerned in regard to the National
Scholarship Programme that you can only access the scholarship
after having applied for a place.
197. The Association of Colleges also questioned
whether the NSP was "fit for purpose" as a scholarship
scheme to help bright people from poor backgrounds enter higher
education and believed that the existence of "possibly over
one hundred institutionally based schemes" could lead to
"unnecessary complexity and confusion for applicants".
To help increase certainty for applicants, the Association of
Colleges recommended that eligibility for support from the NSP
should be linked to eligibility for the 16-18 Bursary fund (the
replacement for the Educational Maintenance Allowance).
This potential for inconsistency and complexity was summarised
by Bahram Bekhradnia who stated "If student needs are the
issue, then there is no argument for them to vary by university".
198. However, the Minister told us that leaving
individual institutions to develop their own models of support
under the National Scholarship Programme was a policy decision
and that the Government had "deliberately decentralised,
or localised" the Programme as part of a specific coalition
policy "to give a little bit more discretion to universities".
FEE WAIVERS VERSUS BURSARIES
199. The Minister argued that the Government
favoured fee-waivers could reduce the amount the Treasury would
need to lend to the student, and thus also reduce the headline
national 'average' fee.
This argument was not supported by Sir Peter Lampl who believed
that the promotion of fee-waivers in this manner sent out a contradictory
message to the Government's central claim that higher fees should
not be a deterrent to participation:
We are all arguing these fees are not a deterrent
] that is the official argument. We are saying that if
we give kids a little bit of money so they do not have to incur
such high costs, it acts as an incentive. That is where I see
200. While a fee waiver undoubtedly reduces the
graduate's long-term debt, it also reduces the total financial
support that the student may claim. A better-off student may have
the resources to pay some or all of their tuition fees up front,
but may still choose to take out a full fee loan and use those
funds to spend on books, food, accommodation, field-trips etc.
A student from a low-income background who is awarded a fee waiver
does not have this option. The amount they may borrow to cover
tuition fees is reduced accordingly, but they will only benefit
from a lower debt as a graduate if and when they come within a
few thousand pounds of completely paying off their loan. Many
graduates do not become high earners, may never pay off their
loan, and so would never actually benefit from having borrowed
less as a result of the fee waiver than they might have done.
At the same time, they may have accrued additional (and more expensive)
commercial debts through overdrafts and credit cards to support
themselves during their studies.
201. Aaron Porter, then President of the National
Union of Students believed that support for less privileged students
was better targeted at living costs:
I believe a discount on something that you are not
repaying until you get to £21,000 is not as well spent as
something that can put money in the pockets of poorer students
while they are there.
This view was also supported by Simon Hughes MP,
who said that when he discussed support for student "they
were clear that any scholarships should be to pay off things other
than fees and not be fee waivers".
In his Report to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister
he recommended that "from 2013 national scholarships should
only be available for payment of accommodation and living costs,
unless the student expressly requests the scholarship for fee
202. We welcome any additional
investment to remove barriers to participation in higher education.
However, we are not convinced that the Government's policies for
widening participation will achieve its objectives as effectively
as it may have hoped. What prospective students need is a level
of certainty about their entitlement and support before making
203. We believe that focusing
financial support on providing money for living costs to students
while they are studying would be a more effective means of support
than fee-waivers and would be more consistent with the message
that students should not be dissuaded from applying to university
because of the cost. We therefore recommend that the National
Scholarship Programme be refocused to direct public funds to support
living costs of students.
188 Q 137 Back
Ev w59 Back
Ev 274 Back
Ev 239 Back
Q 663 Back
Higher Education Outreach: targeting disadvantaged learners, May
2007, HEFCE http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2007/07_12/07_12.pdf
OFFA bursary leaflet for HE advisors 2010-11 Back
Office for Fair Access, Have bursaries influenced choices between
universities?: A report to the Office for Fair Access by Dr Mark
Corver, senior analyst at Higher Education Funding Council for
England (HEFCE) (September 2010) page 2 Back
Office for Fair Access, How to produce an access agreement
for 2012/13, (March 2011/01) Back
Q 458 Back
Q 460 Back
Ev 224 and 227 Back
Barr and Shephard, Towards setting student numbers free
(December 2010) paragraph 12 Back
Ev 154 Back
Ev 154 Back
Ev 222 and 235 Back
Ev 235 Back
Q 342 Back
Ev 166 Back
Ev 169 Back
Q 443 Back
Q 718 Back
Q 662 Back
Q 348 [Sir Peter Lampl] Back
Q 197 Back
Q 625 Back
Simon Hughes MP, report to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime
Minister (July 2010) page 11 Back