Hefce staff-borrowing plan 'absurd'

April 30, 2004

Government plans for an independent university access regulator were branded absurd this week after it was revealed that the body would have to borrow staff as well as offices from England's higher education funding quango.

The Office for Fair Access will share the Bristol headquarters of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and will take council employees "on loan".

The government also confirmed that Offa would have an annual budget of Pounds 500,000, which would come from the existing budget for higher education, most of which is channelled through Hefce.

Opposition parties, which argue that there is no need for a new regulator because Hefce could do the job of monitoring efforts to recruit students from poor backgrounds, greeted the news with amazement.

David Rendel, Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, said: "The whole thing is becoming more absurd. It seems that it will be a subsection of Hefce, so why not call it that?

"It's a sop to the chancellor to try to persuade him that something is going to be done to widen access for young people from less privileged backgrounds."

Chris Grayling, the Tory higher education spokesman, said: "An independent regulator shouldn't be tied by an umbilical cord to Hefce.

"Equally, Hefce is already doing many of the things Offa would do and is responsible for widening participation. Creating a separate body is just duplicating the bureaucracy."

Hefce said it supported the principle of widening participation and acknowledged that Offa would help maintain access by poor students after top-up fees are introduced in 2006.

But a spokesman said: "We can see no overriding reason why Offa should be independent of Hefce and believe Hefce could exercise the powers proposed for Offa in a way that would be perceived as fair by all parties.

"We accept that the government is not persuaded of this and therefore, as stated in our strategic plan for 2003-08, we are committed to 'work with the sector and the Department for Education and Skills to develop the role of the proposed access regulator and our relationship with them'."

The DFES this week stressed that the regulator would be independent and that it was "sensible" in the short term for Offa to work closely with Hefce.

A DFES spokeswoman said: "Generally, Offa will have to work with Hefce to ensure institutions do not need to give both organisations the same information - this is all part of being non-bureaucratic in our approach.

That is not to say that Offa will always be co-located with Hefce or always use Hefce staff."

The appointment of a regulator is expected soon.

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