19/04/2012 13:03 BST

Universities Should Sponsor Free Schools And Academies With Poor Pupils, Says Offa

Universities planning to charge students up to £9,000 in fees next year should consider sponsoring academies and free schools, according to the fair access watchdog.

These links could help boost the numbers of poorer teenagers going into higher education, new guidance published by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) suggested.

It said universities should be encouraged to have "strong links" with schools with high numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The call is included in OFFA's new guidance to universities on completing "access agreements" for the 2013/14 academic year.

Every institution planning to charge students more than £6,000 in fees now has to complete an annual agreement setting out how they plan to ensure students from deprived neighbourhoods are not priced out.

This could include fee waivers, or subsidised fees for poorer students, spending money on "outreach" work and schemes to raise aspirations and achievement in schools and to encourage more disadvantaged youngsters to apply.

The agreements are reviewed each year, with universities that fail to meet their agreed targets on recruitment and retention facing the prospect of fines, and losing the right to charge more than £6,000.

The document encourages universities to have "strong links with schools and colleges where progression rates are low or where there are significant proportions of students from under-represented groups.

"For example, several universities and colleges sponsor academies, free schools and trust schools, and in future, initiatives such as university training schools will enable institutions to play greater roles in governance and teaching in a school."

Free schools, which are established by organisations such as parents, teachers, charities and faith groups, are a flagship measure of the coalition government's education reforms.

The academies programme was first set up under Tony Blair's Labour government in a bid to boost standards in disadvantaged areas.

The current government has opened the scheme up to allow any existing school to apply for academy status, which gives them freedom in areas such as staff pay and conditions and the curriculum.

The Russell Group, which represents 20 of the UK's elite universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, raised concerns that OFFA's guidance did not focus on the problem of too many poor students failing to achieve the right grades in the right subjects.

Director General Dr Wendy Piatt said: "Focusing on application and admission targets will not resolve the real problem and risks being counter-productive.

"It could distract attention, effort and resources from outreach schemes and collaborative work by Russell Group universities which are successful in increasing the number of disadvantaged students going to university."

She added: "We note that the latest OFFA guidance contains considerably more comment, views and specifications than previously on particular widening participation activities such as funding postgraduate internships, establishing free schools and providing information, advice and guidance."

Russell Group universities already work with schools in many different ways, Dr Piatt said.

The new guidance says that universities with low proportions of "under-represented" students, such as those from poorer backgrounds, or with disabilities, should be spending around 30% of their fee income above £6,000 on widening access, or "outreach" activities.

This means that institutions with the highest fees and lowest proportions of disadvantaged students should spend around £900 on widening access for every tuition fee they receive.

It also says that universities will need to include in their access agreements a statement showing how much they have consulted with students on their proposals.

OFFA warns in its guidance that it will use all sanctions available if it believes a university has committed a "serious and wilful breach" of its access agreement.

Yearly access agreements were brought in as part of major reforms to the higher education sector.

MPs voted to raise tuition fees to £6,000 in December 2010, with institutions able to charge up to £9,000 in "exceptional circumstances".

But it has since been established that most universities will charge at, or close to, the maximum when the new regime starts this autumn.

Institutions have until the end of next month to submit their access agreements for next year.