The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is right to put engaging students at the heart of the creation of institutions’ access agreements but must be careful not to dismiss evidence that bursaries are a valuable way to offer financial support to students, said the National Union of Students (NUS) today.
NUS was responding to the publication of OFFA’s guidance to higher education institutions on how to produce their access agreements – the documents stating how universities will widen access to underrepresented groups, and which must be agreed with OFFA in order to charge undergraduate tuition fees over the basic fee (£6,000).
The new OFFA guidance for the 2014-15 academic year makes engagement with students’ unions a high priority for higher education institutions as they create their new access agreements.
The document also places increased priority on outreach programmes, suggesting they should be more important to institutions than the bursaries students have made clear that they need.
NUS president Liam Burns said: “It is fantastic to see OFFA recognise the importance of students’ unions in creating access agreements that better meet students’ needs and will reach and support the most vulnerable.
“However, the continued confusion over the best way to spend support funds is concerning, especially when there is such strong evidence that in the absence of a financial support system which gives those who are studying the money they need to study, bursaries are the form of support that is most beneficial to students.
“Our research shows that students prefer regular cash payments to waivers and vouchers of any kind. Outreach programmes can be very helpful in widening access but it is no good getting students into institutions if they can’t afford to pay their living costs when they’re there, and have to drop out as a result.
“It is welcome that institutions are being pushed to properly evaluate the effectiveness of their access programmes. All provision should be based on solid current evidence rather than speculation or a desire to drive down costs.”