Offa to give the facts

August 18, 2006

Offa to give the facts Daryn McCombe's letter (August 11) contains so many statements seemingly destined to become urban myths that it seems appropriate to set the record straight before it is too late.

First, it was the Government's intention to create a "market"

in undergraduate fees, but the cap of £3,000 was the highest that Parliament would accept and allowed very little headroom for variability.

So what we are now seeing is a virtual absence of a market in fees, although there is a wide range of financial support available from institutions.

Second, the Office for Fair Access was established to ensure that students would get a fair deal in respect of financial support through bursaries.

Again, Parliament insisted that these decisions should be made individually, by autonomous institutions, subject to monitoring by an independent regulator, that is, the director of Offa. I would certainly not have accepted the post on any other basis, and I was delighted at the supportive, even generous, response to the financial needs of students demonstrated by institutions through their diverse bursary schemes.

Third, my request to the sector to stick, over the next two crucial months, to policies that institutions have themselves devised is framed as a request precisely because I have no powers to issue directions to any institution that has an access agreement in place unless this agreement is breached. What I have warned against is treating late applicants more favourably than earlier ones in respect of bursaries (not fees, which I am certain no one will vary at this stage), because of the need to ensure fairness between one student and another. I am confident that this message has been understood.

Finally, as director of Offa, far from being "beholden" to the Government, I have at all times been left free to carry out Parliament's remit as I have seen fit, in close consultation with the sector. Neither ministers nor officials have sought to influence the decisions I have taken.

We shall soon see whether the social mix of the 2006 cohort of undergraduates has changed significantly. Perhaps then will be the time to pass judgment on the effects of the Higher Education Act, which will bring vitally needed resources into universities and colleges.

Sir Martin Harris
Director, Office for Fair Access

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