Universities that intend to charge the maximum fees of £9,000 per year will have to spend up to £900 of that income on fairer access for poorer students, boosting the diversity of future degree-educated workers.
The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) – the watchdog that will rule on universities’ applications to charge higher fees – has published guidelines showing how much universities should spend on fee subsidies and outreach projects. It sets a sliding scale ranging from 15% to 30% of fee income above £6,000. Universities that have a “low proportion of under-represented students” will be required to pay the highest levy.
Without the fair access levy, there was the danger that future generations of graduates would not reflect the diversity of the rest of the workforce. OFFA’s director-general, Sir Martin Harris, said: “We are now entering uncharted territory and none of us can predict exactly how the new higher fees will affect student behaviour. There is a real risk that disadvantaged students in particular will start to feel they cannot afford to go to university. It is therefore vital that the sector gets across the message that tuition fees are not payable upfront and that students only start repaying fee and maintenance loans once they are earning more than £21,000.”
Jim Hillage, director of research at the Institute for Employment Studies, told Personnel Today: “This is a step in the right direction – we need strong initiatives. If this means the pool of graduates is drawn from a wider diverse background, employers will have access to a higher level of talent in all forms – both in terms of academic ability and how that ability is applied, so in theory this is a good move.”
Stephen Overell, associate director of policy at The Work Foundation, agreed: “It’s a mixed picture, but diversity has clear business benefits in terms of innovation and appealing to a diverse customer base.”
But Hillage flagged up concerns that, notwithstanding the levy, fewer students from poorer backgrounds are coming through the university system. “Research shows that they don’t fully grasp what is open to them in terms of bursaries and so on – and many are put off by the notion of debt,” he said.
Both agreed, though, that workers with higher education perform better and earn more. “There is still good evidence that a degree is a financially beneficial qualification,” concluded Overell.