Office for Fair Access
The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is an independent public body in the United Kingdom that supports the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education in his or her work that is intended to safeguard and promote fair access to higher education in England. It approves and monitors 'access agreements'. All English universities and colleges that want to charge higher fees must have an 'access agreement' approved by the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education.
The Higher Education Act 2004 introduced the concept of variable tuition fees for the first time. Whilst some parts of the United Kingdom, most notably Scotland, did not implement top-up fees, most universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) in the United Kingdom are in England and are thus under the new regime.
That regime allowed HEIs to charge tuition fees of any amount from £0 to £3,000. (These caps were raised in 2010.) At the time this policy was being debated there was considerable concern that the amount of debt new graduates would be faced with could dissuade some potential students from entering higher education altogether. Thus, as part of the debate, the Government of the United Kingdom decided to institute a regulator to ensure that HEIs took steps to ensure that such dissuasion did not occur. The Act established the post of Director of Fair Access to Higher Education and the supporting body OFFA, and gave the Director the power to prevent a HEI charging fees above £1,200 if it could not satisfy the regulator that it would make adequate provision for widening access and encouraging participation.
For the academic year starting September 2012, the amount that institutions could charge increased to £9000, subject to approval by the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education.
OFFA states that it has two core aims:
- To increase the proportion of learners from under-represented and disadvantaged groups who enter, succeed in and are well prepared to progress from higher education to employment or postgraduate study.
- To make faster progress in improving access to the most selective higher education institutions by students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups.
These aims are primarily delivered through implementation of approved access agreements, and OFFA's work in monitoring access agreements and disseminating their view of good practice.
An access agreement is a document setting out how a university or college charging higher fees intends to safeguard and promote fair access to higher education through its outreach work, financial support etc. It also includes targets and milestones, set by the university/college itself.
OFFA defines a bursary as a cash award where the student’s eligibility is either wholly or partially dependent on their assessed household income. This is separate from a scholarship which it defines as an award where eligibility is not dependent on the recipient’s assessed household income. For example, some universities and colleges offer scholarships based on academic criteria or whether the student lives in the local area.
Before 2012-13, universities and colleges who charged higher tuition fees had to give a minimum bursary to students entitled to receive the full state Maintenance Grant or Special Support Grant. In 2011-12, the minimum bursary was £338 although in practice, most universities and colleges gave much more than the minimum bursary – the typical bursary given to students on the full Maintenance Grant in 2011-12 was around £900 a year. Students who started their course in 2011-12 or before must continue to receive a minimum bursary.
From 2012-13, following Government changes to student finance, there is no minimum bursary. In parallel with these changes, which were introduced at a time when the partners in the UK's Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government had opposite manifesto commitments over the raising of the fee cap to £9000, a National Scholarship Programme (NSP) was introduced to give non-repayable financial support to lower income students. Independent evaluations of the NSP  found that it was of limited effect in widening participation and it was withdrawn after three years.
Charges often made against OFFA are that it levels down rather than raises standards and that it replaces one form of unfairness with another as reforms are being achieved by "disadvantaging" the brightest children.
- Variable tuition fees (also known, inaccurately, as 'top-up fees')
- Higher Education Funding Council for Wales
- British universities
- Higher Education Act 2004
- Tuition fees (UK)
- "History". OFFA. Office for Fair Access. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
- "OFFA Strategic Plan 2015-2020" (PDF). Retrieved 18 January 2016.
- Carasso, Helen; Gunn, Andrew (2015-09-18). "Fees, fairness and the National Scholarship Programme: Higher education policy in England and the Coalition Government". London Review of Education. 13 (2): 70–83.
- "NSP initial evaluation".
- "NSP Yr4 evaluation".
- "HEFCE on closure of NSP".
- Media criticism: 'Mediocrity'
- Media criticism: 'Social engineering'
- Media criticism: 'Disadvantaging the brightest'