Leader: From beast to mayfly?

December 2, 2005

It was going to be the Big Brother of the higher education world, according to the critics, trampling on university autonomy as it set about enforcing the Government's social engineering agenda. As the Office for Fair Admission publishes its strategic plan, however, the question is not how it can be reined in but whether it can justify its existence in the long term.

The first round of access agreements were handled expertly, but even Sir Martin Harris, Offa's director, acknowledges that a dedicated organisation may not be needed indefinitely to carry out this regulatory function.

Today's critics are more likely to conclude that Offa was a (necessary?) sop to Labour backbenchers that has already served its purpose. There may yet be some fee-related recruitment disaster around the corner that necessitates a rethink on bursaries. But if not, £500,000 a year is a high price to pay for the level of monitoring that is likely to be required. Sir Martin is right to argue that Offa's role as a repository of good practice and source of encouragement for widening participation ought to continue. But, at a time when it too may be casting around for a role, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (which, in any case, staffs Offa) ought to be able to take on this responsibility.

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