Offa's 'nuclear option' is an illusory concept (1 of 2)

February 23, 2012

Among the coverage of the appointment of a new Office for Fair Access director ("Cable to make selection panel an Offa it can't refuse", 16 February), it is said that Les Ebdon has threatened to use the "nuclear option" of fining universities up to £500,000 if they miss targets for widening access. We fear that, if he really has said anything of the sort, he will be sorely disappointed upon getting to fly the director's desk to find that, like a Blair/Campbell identification of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Offa has no such arsenal of bombs and missiles.

Short of new powers to determine admissions being awarded to Offa in any eventual higher education bill, its remit can at present, lawfully, be about nothing more than applications and, as with the recent successful challenge to the Charity Commission's over-enthusiastic interpretation of the public benefit test, a judicial review of Offa's powers would rapidly clarify its lack of influence over admissions.

We give full details at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, papers 39 and 40 (oxcheps.new.ox.ac.uk) and in the forthcoming March second edition of The Law of Higher Education.

David Palfreyman, director, Dennis Farrington, visiting fellow, Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Oxford

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