Access body will levy fines

April 11, 2003

The Office for Fair Access will be the first statutory regulator to oversee any part of the UK higher education system.

Yet analysis of the proposals in the Offa document reveals a curiously light-weight policy, more string vest than straitjacket.

The Offa proposals tip a nod in all directions, guaranteeing university control over admissions while threatening fines for those that recruit too many wealthy students.

What is Offa?

The Offa paper says it will be "independent", "separate from but supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England".

Legislation will be brought forward in respect of policies outlined in January's white paper, including the access regulator.

Offa will operate within a legal and policy framework but the regulator will be allowed to use independent judgement, for example, in the level of fines imposed.

Offa will report to parliament after five years and the regulator will submit an annual report to the education and skills committee.

It is hoped that Offa will be operating by 2005. Comments on the proposals should be sent to the Department for Education and Skills before June 2.

Offa's role

Education secretary Charles Clarke said: "The role of Offa will beI to agree with those universities that want to charge higher fees a set of steps for eachI to address the differential patterns of application and aspirations which apply to their university."

The access regulator proposals map out the government's widening participation strategy under four headings: attainment, aspiration, application and admissions.

Only aspiration and application relate substantially to the future work of Offa. Attainment is primarily a matter of improving performance in schools and colleges. University admissions procedures will remain outside Offa's remit.

Mr Clarke identified differential patterns of application to universities (see tables), rather than specific differential admissions procedures, as the most important factor in determining which universities people decided to go to.

Offa's job would be to "underpin" universities' efforts in raising aspirations among students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Access agreements

Mr Clarke said: "Institutions that wish to charge variable fees above the standard fee will be required to enter an agreement with Offa and that agreement will cover a five-year period. There will be flexibility for a university to modify its agreement."

Access agreements will apply to all universities even if they have collegiate structures such as those at Oxford and Cambridge.

Breaches of access agreements could lead to the regulator imposing fines.

The level of penalty has not been specified.

Agreements must set out what level of top-up fee will be charged.

Universities can apply to Offa to renegotiate levels.

Agreements must also set out strategies for encouraging applications from disadvantaged students. They must cover bursaries and financial arrangements for less well-off students.

Institutions will set access targets and measure their own progress. The regulator will not hold universities to these targets.

But Offa will have the power to reject an institution's access agreement if the regulator feels the milestones are unchallenging.

Universities will be required to submit short annual reports to the regulator with progress updates.

Hands-off admissions

The Offa paper says: "The government is clear that admissions policies are the responsibility of the universities - not of the government. We are also quite clear that admission to a university must be on merit - irrespective of class, or school attended."

Admissions staff could decide that an applicant lacking top grades but from a school with a poor exam record has more potential than an applicant with better grades from a school that churns out pupils with top grades.

Attempts by the government, through Offa, to codify procedure for such judgements would risk accusations of social engineering.

Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, will produce a general statement of best-practice principles on admissions that Mr Clarke hopes will be developed and agreed by all universities.

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