Independently stealthy

April 14, 2011

We must thank Thomas Docherty for reminding us just how ignorant ministers are about the powers of the Office for Fair Access ("Rethink funding 'mess' to achieve democratic and wide participation," 31 March) and for rightly pointing out some of the anomalies that might accrue if Offa does actually withdraw institutions' right to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 a year.

However, he seems to have gone along with the belief that the new Offa guidelines are more demanding of institutions because they are presented with an indicative table of charges. This was the line taken by Simon Hughes, the Advocate for Access to Education, in a recent speech designed to show that Sir Martin Harris had kowtowed to the government's agenda.

In fact, a close reading of the old and new guidelines shows that the parameters of additional fee income to be spent on access are very similar to the loose framework suggested in the original guidance and that while institutions wishing to "charge fees towards the top end" have for the first time prescribed proportions to spend, they are told only that they "might choose to spend" up to those proportions.

Sir Martin's careful language might have fooled ministers and their advocate lackey, but he has in fact retained Offa's integrity and independence and struck a blow for university autonomy to boot.

Colin McCaig, Sheffield Hallam University

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