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United-Kingdom-England:Support Measures for Learners in Higher Education

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This article covers support measures for learners in higher education. There are two aspects to this: the protection of the rights of and access to equal opportunity for all learners, and the government policy objectives of widening participation and fair access (see the subsection below for details of this aspect).

The Equality Act 2010 provides a single legal framework that seeks to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all. The Act prohibits unfair treatment in the workplace, when providing goods, facilities and services, when exercising public functions, in the disposal and management of premises, in education and by associations (such as private clubs).  Public bodies with responsibilities under the Act include government departments, government agencies, local government and education providers at all levels of education, including schools, further education colleges and higher education institutions.  The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has produced guidance on the Act for further and higher education providers, who must comply with a range of eight protected characteristics:
  • age 
  • disability 
  • gender reassignment 
  • pregnancy and maternity 
  • race 
  • religion or belief 
  • sex 
  • sexual orientation 
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) aims to promote and provide the opportunity of successful participation in higher education to everyone who can benefit from it. 

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is an independent public body that helps safeguard and promote fair access to higher education.
A number of other organisations support higher education institutions to meet the needs of disabled people and generally to advance the widening access agenda:
  • Action on Access, which provides coordination and support for widening participation and access to higher education in the UK
  • The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), which works to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education
  • Higher Education Academy (HEA), which supports institutions on teaching and learning issues
  • Disability Rights UK, a national pan-disability organisation led by disabled people.


Definition of the Target Group(s)

Support measures for learners in higher education focus on those groups which are under-represented in higher education. HEFCE is concerned with equal opportunities for learners with any protected characteristics as outlined in the Introduction to this article, including disabled students, mature students, women and men and all ethnic groups.

Specific priorities as set out by the Government in the higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System (BIS, 2011) included supporting social mobility, fair access and widening participation. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been statistically less likely to attend higher education institutions (HEIs): the White Paper noted that fewer than one in five young people from the most disadvantaged areas enter higher education compared with more than one in two for the most advantaged areas.  Successive governments have attempted to make higher education (HE) more accessible to these students and the White Paper stated that the proportion of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas entering higher education had increased by around 30 per cent (6 600 more students) over the previous five years, and by around 50 per cent over the previous fifteen years (9 000 more students). The White Paper suggested that, in future, students would have greater choice about how they complete their courses, making higher education more accessible. More part-time or accelerated courses, sandwich courses, distance learning and higher level vocational study were proposed. The White Paper also stated that the admissions process should be made fairer so that those with the highest academic potential should have the opportunity to access the most selective HEIs, regardless of their socio-economic background.  Additional funding was proposed to ensure that disabled students and students from low-participation backgrounds would receive adequate support. This was an important priority in the context of significantly increased tuition fees, as detailed below under the subheading ‘Fair Access and Widening Participation’ and in the article on ‘Higher Education Funding’.

Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report 2012, by the Equality Challenge Unit, gives an indication of access to higher education in terms of black and minority ethnic group, gender and disability over the eight-year period 2003/4 to 2010/11 across the United Kingdom: 
  • The proportion of UK-domiciled black and minority ethnic students increased from 14.9 per cent in 2003/04 to 18.4 per cent in 2010/11. 
  • There were consistently more female students than male students in higher education in the UK and in 2010/11 there was a gap of 12.8 per cent between female and male students’ representation. 
  • The proportion of students declaring a disability increased from 5.5 per cent in 2003/04 to 8.0 per cent in 2010/11. 
A House of Commons Library Standard Note on Entrants to Higher Education (2013) provides a timeline on trends since 1994.

Specific Support Measures

Specific support measures exist both to enable students with disabilities to take a full part in higher education and to promote fair access and widen participation for all under-represented groups. 

Support for Disabled Students

Government funding supports disabled students both indirectly and directly. 

Indirectly, funding via the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is given to higher education institutions (HEIs) to help them meet the diverse needs of disabled students. 

Directly, eligible disabled students can receive Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs). DSAs aim to help students with disabilities, specific learning difficulties and mental health conditions. DSAs can help to remove some of the obstacles that may prevent disabled students from entering and completing higher education courses, by helping to pay the extra costs a disabled student may incur – as a direct result of their disability – in attending a course of higher education. DSAs are paid in addition to the standard student support package. They are not means tested and do not have to be repaid. 

During 2013, the Government has conducted a call for evidence to inform a review of targeted support for higher education students, with the aim of assisting in the development of options to target funding more effectively for disabled students (and also for students with dependants). Feedback to the consultation is currently being analysed.
Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is a tax-free benefit to assist with additional costs incurred by adults aged 16–64 living with long-term ill-health or a disability. It has replaced Disability Living Allowance for adults as of April 2013.
In 2009, HEFCE produced the report Evaluation of Provision and Support for Disabled Students in Higher Education.  It found that national measures such as the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), the Disability Equality Duty (now both consolidated into the Equality Act 2010 and the Public Sector Equality Duty), and the Disability Equality Scheme  have increased HEIs’ focus on opportunities and access for disabled students. The report found that of a sample of 51 HEIs and 13 further education colleges in England all had a dedicated support service for students, although approaches varied. Over 80 per cent of HEIs had an equality champion. Almost 80 per cent of institutions offered support to students across all types of impairment set out by HEFCE. 

In 2010, the Equality Challenge Unit produced revised guidance entitled Disability Legislation: Practical Guidance for Academic Staff which offers guidance on the legislative context, admissions and inductions, programme design and validation, lectures and practical sessions. 

The UK Quality Code for Higher Education (the Quality Code), issued by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in 2011, provides guidance for higher education institutions. Chapter B4: Enabling student development and achievement covers support to disabled students and is intended to help institutions ensure that disabled students have an opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of university life. It includes guidance and ‘indicators of sound practice’ for learning opportunities for disabled students. The Code aims to assist institutions in ensuring that students with disabilities do not have a less favourable experience of higher education than their peers. 

Some of the issues addressed by the Code include:
  • the physical environment
  • information for prospective students, current students and staff
  • admissions processes and policies
  • academic support for disabled students
  • access to student services
  • learning and teaching.

Fair Access and Widening Participation

Higher education is considered an important vehicle for increasing social mobility and for this reason widening access to higher education for students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups has been seen as a priority by successive governments. The oversight of access to higher education is carried out by HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

OFFA defines fair access as equality of opportunity for all those who have the potential to benefit from higher education, irrespective of their background, schooling or income. The term is often used with reference to admission to the most selective institutions.  

Widening participation is defined by OFFA as improving under-representation at a national level; it covers not only young people from low-income backgrounds but all those from groups under-represented in higher education, taking into account issues facing disabled students, ethnic minorities, part-time and mature students. 

See the introductory article to the ‘Higher Education’ topic for how these policy objectives are conveyed to HEFCE through the annual grant letter and see HEFCE’s widening participation web pages for how these policy objectives are implemented by HEFCE. 
OFFA was established as an independent public body under the Higher Education Act 2004. Its purpose is to help safeguard and promote fair access to higher education in the context of increased tuition fees (see the article on ‘Higher Education Funding’ for further details). The main way OFFA does this is by approving and monitoring ‘access agreements’.  Any HEI that charges fees higher than the basic level must have an access agreement with OFFA, covering both full-time and part-time students. These agreements set out the measures, such as outreach and financial support, that the HEIs have put in place to improve access and student retention. OFFA publishes guidance to assist institutions in producing their access agreements (for example, by May 2012, HEIs had to submit for approval their proposals relating to charging higher fees during 2013/14). An example of an access agreement is available here
The maximum full-time tuition fee that can be charged by an institution with an access agreement in place is £9 000; otherwise fees are capped at £6 000. The average tuition fee charged during the 2012/13 academic year was £8 385. For the academic year 2013/14, 122 higher education institutions have access arrangements in place.

OFFA and HEFCE are working with HEIs and providers to develop a national strategy for access and student success, with the aim of ensuring that everyone with the potential to benefit from higher education has an equal opportunity to do so, regardless of background, age, ethnicity, disability or gender. The strategy will also help maximise the impact of effort and investment in widening participation, access and student success by universities, colleges, the government and other organisations. 
Widening participation strategic assessments (WPSAs) and widening participation strategic statements (WPSSs) are documents that HEFCE requires from all the HEIs and further education colleges that it funds. They complement the access agreements that must be drawn up with OFFA in order to charge higher fees.

WPSAs were written in 2009. They outlined each institution’s overarching commitment to widening participation, plus a strategic assessment of what the institution hoped to achieve over the following three years.
From 2012-13, HEFCE changed widening participation strategic assessments to widening participation strategic statements. The first WPSSs were designed to last for only one year and are thus referred to as ‘interim’ WPSSs. HEFCE requested institutions to update these for 2013/14.

OFFA and HEFCE have a joint process for monitoring access agreements and WPSSs. They are currently developing guidance for an integrated document which aims to integrate the two documents into one submission that meets the requirements of both organisations, thereby reducing the burden upon institutions. The aim is to create a single, coherent framework within which institutions are able to set their strategies, commitments and targets for widening access and student success. The new process will also provide a framework against which institutions can evidence their work and commitment, and within which HEFCE and OFFA can effectively monitor and evaluate institutional and sector-wide progress.

The House of Commons Library has produced a Standard Note (2013) detailing the changes to the regulation of the higher education system.
HEFCE allocated £141 million directly to HEIs for widening participation in 2012/13 (HEFCE 2013/06) comprising: 
  • £128 million for widening access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds currently under-represented in higher education
  • £13 million for widening access and improving provision for disabled students. 
The Government provides HEIs with an Access to Learning Fund allocation each year to enable institutions to provide discretionary financial help to  students who need extra financial support. HEIs decide how money from the fund is paid out locally. The following groups of students are priorities for support: 
  • students with children – especially single parents 
  • mature students – especially those with existing financial commitments 
  • students from low-income families (as determined by the university or college) 
  • care leavers 
  • students who are homeless or who are living in ‘Foyers’ (these provide accommodation, guidance and support for homeless young people) 
  • final-year students 
  • disabled students. 
In 2012/13 a new National Scholarship Programme (NSP) was introduced. Administered by HEFCE on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the NSP aims to assist students from low-income households earning below £25 000 per year. Institutions match fund the government contribution to the programme.

A bursary awarded under the NSP can involve one or more of the following:
  • a cash bursary of up to £1 000 
  • help with tuition fees and accommodation 
  • a free foundation year (a programme that helps students meet the entry criteria for a higher education course) 
Students apply through their chosen HEI, which allocates the NSP funding and may also impose its own eligibility criteria.

Extra financial help is also available for students with adult or child dependents. 

The Aimhigher programme, which had previously led the way nationally in widening participation activities, formally ended at the end of July 2011. The programme focused on students from lower socio-economic groups and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who live in areas of relative deprivation where participation in higher education is low. Aimhigher materials are hosted online by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) as a collection of research and evidence.