After weeks of hysteria over supposed social engineering, the brief for the Office for Fair Access begs the question: what was all the fuss about? The answer, of course, is that this week's proposals bear little resemblance to those in the white paper. Significant amendments were still being made on the day before publication. Call it responsible consultation or a loss of nerve, the package now looks far more acceptable to universities and colleges. Offtoff is not to be, there will be no interference in admissions procedures and the prospect of the regulator exercising the power to veto top-up fees is a distant one. Negotiation is the order of the day.
But will the new, less threatening Offa be worth having at all? If the only effect is to encourage universities to pour large sums into bursaries and outreach activities, with no guarantee that more disadvantaged students will win places as a result, the initial arrangements will surely be short-lived. The proposed focus on applications will soon turn back into a demand for admissions targets unless the student population actually becomes more socially diverse.
In practice, however, the social balance is likely to tilt to some extent, with or without a regulator. However belatedly in some cases, practically all universities are committed to widening access and are already engaged in outreach activities. Previous expansion of higher education and the pressures of the employment market have begun to raise the aspirations of many teenagers who would not have considered university in another era.
The contrast in educational experience between rich and poor in the UK remains stark - much more acute than in most western nations - but a number of myths have been peddled in the current debate. Chief among them is that participation in higher education by the lowest socioeconomic groups has fallen even while student numbers have rocketed. Just this week, the Liberal Democrats claimed that the number of students from poor backgrounds had halved in the past decade. In fact, all sections of society have produced far more students over the past 30 years, but middle-class numbers have grown faster than the rest. Much of the confusion arises from upheavals in social classification: whereas in 1970, almost 90 per cent of the population were in occupations that fell into the three lowest socioeconomic groups, only about 40 per cent are in those categories now.
In 1970, teenagers from wealthy backgrounds were six times more likely to enter higher education than those from the poorest classes; by 2000, the difference was three times - still unacceptable but certainly not a widening of the gap.
The regulator's brief was always going to be a calculated gamble for the government. It had to be tough enough to satisfy the chancellor and numerous Labour backbenchers who could still obstruct top-up fees in the Commons, but sufficiently flexible to win support in the Lords. The fact that Downing Street now has the confidence to support a softly-softly approach probably says as much about the strength of prime minister Tony Blair's political position as it does about his views on university access.
Whoever takes up the poisoned chalice of Offa must have an eye to at least two separate sets of figures: those for higher education as a whole and those for the elite universities. As the sector grows (and particularly if foundation degrees are the vehicle of expansion) working-class numbers should rise. But this debate is really about Bristol and other top universities, where more applications will not necessarily produce a markedly different social mix. It will be easy (if expensive) for such universities to meet the requirements set out by education secretary Charles Clarke this week. But without genuine progress in the schools, Offa's impact will be marginal.