Top-up fee cuts and damnation 1

January 20, 2006

Last week's leader article "Trouble in store for discounts?" was timely, particularly in the light of your report of an apparent lack of clarity in the sector about possible changes to student support in clearing this autumn ("V-cs reported to have ruled out fee cuts to fill places", January 13)).

However, I challenge your conclusion that institutions will "be damned" whatever they decide. On the contrary, for two reasons, what happens is potentially very significant.

First, it is true that I have said whenever I have been asked that as director of the Office for Fair Access, I have no power to prevent an institution from increasing the size of the financial package on offer to applicants at any time. I have, however, said on each such occasion that the outcome must be fair to students in that institution as a whole.

Retrospective fee cuts and/or bursary increases to all students in a particular category would,in all probability, undermine the carefully crafted access agreements that each institution has put together. The alternative - to reward late applicants only - is highly unlikely to be fair or to be in an institution's longer-term interest.

The second reason does not derive from my Offa role, but is based on more than 20 years' experience at a senior level in the sector. Universities and colleges have, rightly, argued for years that they are underfunded. Despite considerable political difficulties, the Government finally acted to increase the resources available, and institutions decided, after due consideration, to use about one-third of these new resources to assist less well-off students, something I warmly welcome. The other two-thirds, however, are urgently needed for other investments that underpin the quality of students' experience: academic pay, infrastructure and the like.

It would be most unfortunate if, during the hurly-burly of clearing, universities were to give away more of the resources they need for other purposes. More than once, the sector has driven down its unit of teaching resource, to its own disadvantage. I very much hope that universities do not once again follow this particular road to "damnation" but that they will defend the (very generous) fee and bursary policies that they themselves so recently devised.

Sir Martin Harris
Director, Office for Fair Access

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