The more lurid speculation about £500,000 fines and refusals to sanction top-up fees is all but put to rest in this week's guidance on access agreements and the supporting comments of Sir Martin Harris (page 4). Sir Martin, the first director of the Office for Fair Access, says bluntly that he cannot think of any circumstances in which he would exercise those powers. Nor, he might have added, would the Government want him to in the run-up to a general election that is likely to take place just as he deliberates on the more delicate agreements. Controversy over supposed social engineering is the last thing Labour will need.
With the access agreements negotiated over this period running for three years, the question is not whether universities will be put under unacceptable pressure, but whether Offa is worth having at all. A rushed process - which will prevent applicants seeing the full details of some universities' plans in next year's prospectuses - will mean that by May, the access die will be cast until 2009-10. As long as universities maintain their bursary and outreach commitments, they cannot be challenged. That is not to say that the process will be a sham. The guidance makes pertinent distinctions between bursaries and scholarships, for example, that should prevent universities passing off attempts at boosting their academic credentials as exercises in widening participation. Sir Martin's appointment and the secondment of experienced staff from the Higher Education Funding Council for England will make equally certain that universities' genuine efforts are given proper recognition even if they do not produce immediate returns. But then what?
The real battle, if there is to be one, will be fought over the renewal of agreements in three years, when Gordon Brown could have replaced Tony Blair as Prime Minister. The Higher Education Act may forbid Offa from trespassing on admissions territory, but it is hard to imagine any Labour administration with a reduced majority continuing to support the current arrangements unless there are more working-class students - not just applicants. That is why, however ineffectual the process may appear over the next five months, the initial agreements must be made to work.