Any route to access will do

December 15, 2011

Wes Streeting's opinion article "Offa's strikes against bursaries not work of fair-access champion" (8 December) wrongly accuses the Office for Fair Access of "directing" universities to divert money from bursaries to tuition fee waivers. That is categorically untrue and (rightly) beyond my powers. Offa's view on fee waivers and bursaries is currently neutral because there is no evidence yet to demonstrate that either influences applicant behaviour.

However, we are certainly not complacent about student support. We have been fully transparent in acknowledging the differences between bursaries (money in a student's pocket now) and fee waivers or lower fees (a reduced loan that some students may not need to repay in full). We will look to understand, as soon as possible, any emerging evidence of impact around access or student success of different kinds of support and will then advise the government and the sector accordingly. We did advise institutions to maintain spending on outreach as much as they could because there is evidence that well-targeted long-term outreach is effective in increasing applications and entrants to higher education from disadvantaged groups.

Finally, Offa is indeed independent. We have regard to ministers' broad guidance, but they have certainly never tried to instruct me. It was Offa's decision to allow institutions to revisit their access agreements to lower average tuition fees in the wake of major government policy changes to the student number controls for 2012-13. There is no space to set out our reasoning in full, but let me point out just one fact that everyone must see: if an institution with a strong widening participation record loses places, no student, poor or otherwise, can gain access to those places. That cannot be in the student interest.

Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access, Office for Fair Access

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