Access agreements

How we regulate access agreements approved under the previous regulatory system

Before the Office for Students was created, higher education access regulation was the responsibility of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

Higher education providers that wanted to charge more than a certain level of tuition fees were required to have 'access agreements' approved by OFFA, which set out how the provider planned to sustain or improve access, student success and progression among people from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. OFFA monitored the implementation of these agreements and took action if agreements were breached. 

OFFA closed at the end of March 2018, but many of these agreements remain in force and the Office for Students now has responsibility for them.

From academic year 2019-20 onwards, when access and participation plans come into force under the current regulatory framework, there will be no new access agreements, but students who started their courses in previous years will remain covered by the access agreements that were in place at that time.

We have a searchable database of all providers' access agreements.

Details of access agreement breaches that we have dealt with are listed below.

Major access agreement breaches

Name of provider

University of Hertfordshire

Type of breach

Fee charged above the amount approved in the university’s access agreement.

How was the breach discovered?

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) identified the breach through its monitoring of 2016-17 access agreements.

Nature of breach

In March 2018, OFFA informed the university that it had exceeded the maximum permitted fee for a franchised course at Pen Green College in 2016-17.

Forty-four students from Pen Green College had been charged £9,000 in 2016-17, representing a total overcharge of £132,000.

This was the third consecutive year in which the university had charged a fee above the limits stated in its access agreement. Details of the access agreement breaches relating to academic years 2014-15 and 2015-16 are available on the archived version of the OFFA website.

OFFA noted that the persistent failure to charge students the fees specified in its access agreements was evidence that the university was seriously negligent in its interpretation of its access agreement, OFFA’s expectations and related legislation and regulations.

This was particularly so in light of the specific assurances given by the university relating to previous breaches, that it had “reviewed the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 access agreements and found no anomalies relating to fees that were quoted in the access agreement and those either charged in 2016-17 and 2017-18 or that plan to be charged in 2018-19”.

The Director of Fair Access to Higher Education invited the university to make representations in respect of the matter to the new regulator, the Office for Students.

Action taken

On the basis of the evidence presented, the Director for Fair Access and Participation ('the Director') judged that the university had been seriously negligent in breaching its access agreement over three consecutive years, and in failing to take action to avoid further breach, and/or to have identified and rectified past breaches having indicated that it would do so.

The Director determined that a financial requirement of £66,000 should be withheld from the university’s grant in 2018-19.

In doing so, the Director took into account the prompt re-payment of affected students in previous cases and the potential impact of the financial requirement on the providers’ students, including those at Pen Green College.

The university subsequently provided the Office for Students with evidence that it had reimbursed the affected students at Pen Green College with the amounts overcharged, including any interest that had been accrued. It also provided assurances relating to the steps the university had undertaken to understand the breach and to ensure that a breach will not happen again.

Date of breach decision

May 2018

Name of provider

Writtle University College

Type of breach

Failure to comply with the provisions set out in the provider’s access agreements.

How was the breach discovered?

Writtle University College informed the Office for Students in May 2018 about its failures to comply with the provisions of its access agreements for 2012-13 to 2017-18.

The Director for Fair Access and Participation ('the Director') instructed the University College to commission an independent assurance review in order to investigate the shortfalls between commitment and actual spend, and to submit a report to the Office for Students.

Nature of breach

On the basis of the independent review, and evidence presented by the University College, the Director for Fair Access and Participation concluded that there had been no deficit in spending on financial support for students, but there had been a total deficit in spending on outreach over the six-year period of £776,120.

Action taken

The Director determined that a financial requirement of £250,000 in total should be withheld from the University College’s grant over three years from 2019-20.

In determining the level of penalty, the Director took into consideration the active approach taken by the University College’s new leadership in highlighting the breach to the Office for Students in May 2018, as well as the actions agreed by the University College’s Board of Governors in August 2018 in response to the independent review of access agreement expenditure. The actions set out, among other things, how the University College plans to eradicate problems including governance that may have led to the failure to comply with provisions of its plans and specifically the failure to allocate the sums committed to the objective of access.

Date of breach decision

October 2018

Minor access agreement breaches

There are currently no minor access agreement breaches to display.

Details of previous access agreement breaches dealt with by OFFA, and the definitions of 'major' and 'minor' breaches, are available on the archived version of the OFFA website.

Decision-making process

Please note that the process used to reach these decisions, including mitigating factors and sanctions applied, reflect the previous policy position of OFFA and transitional arrangements in the legal framework. They should not be taken as representing the approach which may be taken by the OfS under its new enforcement powers for registered higher education providers.

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