Harris to calm nerves on Offa

October 22, 2004

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, hopes the appointment of Sir Martin Harris as the university access regulator will ease "nervousness" in the sector about government plans to attract more working-class students into higher education.

In an exclusive interview with The Times Higher , Mr Clarke stressed that the choice of the former Manchester University vice-chancellor should not be interpreted as a "Russell Group win versus modern universities loss".

Mr Clarke added: "Martin will make it his job from the outset to create confidence and his outstanding performance as a vice-chancellor will make that easier to achieve."

Last week's appointment, however, has done little to quash suspicions that the Office for Fair Access will have limited impact on the sector.

Highlighting continuing tensions over access, Mr Clarke delivered a stinging rebuke to Chris Patten, Oxford University chancellor, over claims that universities were being "forced" to admit more working-class students.

Mr Clarke said that he was disappointed by "silly flutters from one or two Oxford people" and dismissed claims that the Government would use quotas and fines to socially engineer admissions.

Mr Patten had said the Government's plans to interfere in admissions amounted to "appalling" social engineering and a threat to a free society.

Mr Clarke said: "I don't think Chris has taken the trouble to understand what we are proposing, he's been rather lazy about it. I think he's rather let himself down in the way that he's going about it. He's gone back to being a party politician."

He added: "We've said from the outset that we would focus on encouraging applications and never go down the admissions route, because admissions are up to universities to determine."

Responding to Sir Martin's appointment, Graham Allen, MP for Nottingham North and a member of the Commons committee that oversaw the Higher Education Bill, said he was less concerned that Sir Martin had come from a Russell Group university than what he intended to do with Offa. "The Government has not given it as many teeth as I would have liked."

Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, said he hoped Sir Martin would work to minimise the "deterrent effect" of fees on poor students.

But he added: "As the weeks have passed since legislation established Offa, we have seen the Government soften its line on widening participation. The policy needs to be clarified."

Chris Grayling, Conservative higher education spokesman, said: "It is disappointing that such an eminent figure in the university sector should accept an appointment that is so unpopular among vice-chancellors and principals."

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said Sir Martin's role was "little more than a bureaucratic irrelevance".

However, Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group, said it was "entirely appropriate" for a former vice-chancellor of an old university to get the job.

Alasdair Smith, convener of the 1994 Group of universities and vice-chancellor of Sussex University, welcomed the appointment but raised concerns about the "tight timetable" between Offa starting work and finalising access agreements with universities in time for 2006 prospectuses.

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