Durham University could face fines of up to £500,000 if it fails to admit enough students from deprived backgrounds.
The preferred candidate for the Head of Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has stated that he is willing to impose heavy fines on universities charging over £6,000 if they do not adhere to their Access Agreement.
Professor Les Ebdon is the Vice Chancellor at Bedfordshire University and the Coalition’s favourite to take on the new role. His remarks have led some Conservative MPs, who disapprove of his critical outlook on the Higher Education Reform plans pushed by the government, to try and block his appointment.
He believes that it is “important that universities set challenging targets” and that they should “know what things to do to improve participation”, despite seeing universities as independent organisations.
Although OFFA have always had this power, Prof Les Ebdon’s comments come with renewed vigour at a time when the university fees system is being overturned.
The richest 20% of students are seven times more likely to gain a place at an academically selective university than the poorest 40%. The Access Agreements, which aim to change this disparity, detail admissions targets and explain how the university will provide fee discounts and bursaries.
At Durham University, the number of offers made to state school pupils has been steadily declining since 2002. Between 2010 and 2011 offers made to state school pupils fell from 60.9% to 44.4% respectively. Socio-economic groupings also suggest that the majority of Durham students come from relatively wealthy backgrounds, with 61.7% of student’s parents working in professional employment or intermediate occupations.
However, the University has a comprehensive plan to ensure fair access as it raises its tuition fees to £9,000 per year for full time undergraduates in October. Durham’s Access Agreement states that those with a family income below £25,000 will receive a grant of £3,000 per year, part of the £11 million financial package set aside to help students.
A student at University College who receives a scholarship from a civil engineering company, stated that “many students have to turn to industry because there are not enough grants available”.
The grants that do exist are fiercely competitive, with hundreds of applicants per place.
The Access Agreement states that “The University… works hard to identify those with the greatest merit and potential among applicants from all school types”.
However, it insists that “Academic achievement remains the most important factor in determining which applicants receive an offer of a place”.