Rethink funding 'mess' to achieve democratic and wide participation

Offa’s access agreements will not work, argues Thomas Docherty, although two principles should be kept in any alternative system

March 31, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

Widening participation” usually refers to our ability to bring the economically underprivileged into universities in order to foster greater upwards mobility. However, that raises a wider social question of the enfranchisement, through university education, of those who are denied cultural authority and entitlement. Really, then, the question is one of widening participation in democratic society itself. It is better termed “participation in widening the franchise”; and it thus calls the university back from privilege and reinstates its democratic credentials.

Democratic enfranchisement used to be limited to wealthy landowners; but we have long since distanced ourselves from that. Why, then, are we standing over a fees regime that essentially reintroduces the idea that informed participation in democratic society depends on the ability to bear debts well over £40,000?

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg answered this in February. Asked by angry students about universities charging £9,000 a year, he said: “It’s not up to them. They can say what they like. They can’t charge £9,000 unless they’re given permission to do so.” No one had seen this in the legislation, for it wasn’t there. With policy being invented on the hoof like this, civil servants had a busy night; and the next morning, a “letter of guidance” was sent from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to Sir Martin Harris, head of the Office for Fair Access. “Guidance” here is code for “instructions”; and compliance was duly forthcoming.

A month later, Offa issued its “guidance” - often repeating BIS’ letter verbatim - to universities wishing to charge more than £6,000. In paragraph 41, it provides a helpful graph showing what they have to do: to charge £9,000, they will have to provide 30 per cent of everything over £6,000 for extended outreach and other financial support for poorer students. In his ad hoc remarks, inventing policy under fire, Clegg had claimed that universities would only be permitted to charge £9,000 “if they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds who presently aren’t going to Oxford and Cambridge”. Offa’s letter, accordingly, says that institutions will need to provide satisfactory access agreements.

Of course, such agreements prove nothing except an institution’s good intentions about hoped-for future realities. That is usually called “fantasy”. The universities must satisfy Offa’s small office, which now must scrutinise some 160 extremely complex “agreements”; and all in time to allow the sector to plan, budget and start to recruit the appropriate quota of under-represented students.

Offa can do it, however, for it is now very tough: access agreements are to be reviewed annually, and may be revoked if an institution fails the Offa test in any year.

From fantasy to reality. John goes to a £9,000 university, which has made satisfactory promises to Offa about access. After two years, he accrues a debt of £18,000. That year, the university fails its access test, and fees are reduced to £6,000.

Now here is Jane: she follows exactly the same course as John, two years later - after Offa has withdrawn its permission to charge £9,000. She accrues only £12,000 debt against his £18,000. The only difference here is Offa’s view of the general ethos of the institution. Then, in year three, the university regains its £9,000 status, and thus imposes a 50 per cent increase on Jane’s fees. Fair? Just?

Offa concedes that universities will be running different fee regimes and agreements simultaneously. It follows, of course, that where institutions run years two and three together, as most do, students sitting in the same class will have to pay back hugely different sums. More “flat-pack” policymaking; but that is unsurprising, with a Bill that had but five hours of “democratic” scrutiny in the Commons.

However, in the midst of this mess, two vital principles have been ceded. They are that the better-off should contribute a subsidy to help the poor; and that the fee for study is partly determined by the social good that a university does.

We should retain these two principles, regardless of the confusion from which they have emerged. They are, in short, a recipe for a tertiary education system funded from general taxation, with the wealthy making a proportionate contribution to a social good. There is genuine opportunity here for Universities UK to offer an alternative to what we now know to be the ideologically driven and flawed ad hoc policymaking deriving from the Browne Review.

UUK has a choice: democratic participation and wide enfranchisement, or ill-considered pseudo-policy grounded in privilege. It should immediately back calls for a reconsideration of university funding.

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