By Max Clarke

In a final Guidance Letter sent to the Office of Fair Access today Ministers asked its Director to be more challenging and demanding of universities seeking to charge higher fees.

The Government also announced details of the national scholarship programme that will provide students from disadvantaged backgrounds help with the cost of attending university. Around 50,000 students a year could be awarded a scholarship from 2014. Scholarships will be worth at least £3,000 for individual students in tuition discounts and other benefits.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said:

“Universities can and should do more to ensure fair access. Today we are setting out our expectations for the action needed to close the gap between aspiration and achievement.

Social mobility in this country has stalled. It will only impruniove if we throw open the doors of universities, especially the most selective, to more bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“We must ensure that our great universities — often the gateway to the professions — make active and measurable progress to widen participation and advance social mobility.”

Business Secretary Vince Cable said:

“The Government has put a fair graduate contribution scheme in place which will ensure anyone that has the ability can go to university. We are asking universities to do more to ensure that happens by working harder and investing more in attracting students from disadvantaged and non-traditional backgrounds. As part of the education system our universities have crucial part to play in driving social mobility.

“Our new scholarship programme is designed to complement rather than replace what universities are already doing. The programme will remain flexible in its initial years to enable us to make adjustments in the light of experience on campus.”

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said:

“We are focused on the outcomes we expect from universities rather than dictating how they are to be achieved. The new system will be flexible; respecting university autonomy and enabling institutions to decide which measures to improve access suit their particular circumstances and characteristics.

“The strengthened Guidance we have issued to the Director of Fair Access will require universities to take much more determined action on widening participation and report annually on the progress they have achieved.”

In the Guidance Letter sent to the Director of Fair Access today Ministers set out how he should make his assessment of access agreements submitted by universities wishing to charge more than £6,000. The strengthened guidance requires the Director to be more challenging and demanding through the following measures:

* universities will have to show real measurable progress against benchmarks;
* they will also have to do more to reduce the number of students who drop out;
* the Director will require more investment in access measures from universities whose progress against agreed benchmarks is not sufficient; and
* university Access Agreements will be reviewed annually instead of the previous 5-year approval cycle.