Ministers have been warned that they face a backlash from highly selective universities and backbench MPs if they give the director of fair access to higher education the power to set institutional admissions targets.
Les Ebdon, the director of the Office for Fair Access, is presently able only to negotiate with English universities over targets that they propose, although he does have the ultimate sanction of barring an institution from charging tuition fees in excess of £6,000 if an access agreement cannot be reached.
One option that is being considered as part of the higher education Green Paper is to allow the director to set targets for universities that are failing to make fast enough progress on widening participation, or where outcomes for disadvantaged groups are below expectations.
The director could also be given the power to refuse to approve an institution’s access agreement if it fails to achieve targets “without good reason”, a course that, at the moment, can be taken only if a provider “seriously and wilfully breaches” its agreement.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the opposition of some Conservative MPs to Professor Ebdon’s appointment in 2012, after his statement that he would be prepared to use the “nuclear option” of blocking higher fees, indicated that giving him the power to set institutional targets “could stoke a row in the Conservative Party and some parts of the higher education sector”.
“Many people who dislike [the Office for Fair Access] think it already has this power, but when they discover it doesn’t but is about to get it, the sort of rows we have seen in the past could well start up again,” Mr Hillman said.
The Green Paper says that any changes “would need to be balanced by the desire to protect autonomy over admissions and academic freedom”.
Mr Hillman said that the success of any new powers would “probably come down to the personality of the office holder”, arguing that Professor Ebdon had “shown himself adept at nudging, pushing and cajoling things in the right direction without risking a big battle”.
But David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said that allowing the director to set admissions targets would be “draconian”. The Green Paper, he said, raised “the possibility of radically invading historic university autonomy in the name of social justice”.
Jonathan Hughes, lecturer in access and curriculum at the Open University, said that there would likely be “considerable resistance” from highly selective universities that felt “that their ability to choose who they want is being further infringed”.
Professor Ebdon said that he would “welcome” having the power to refuse an access agreement proposed by an institution that had failed to hit targets without good reason, but added that he was “still reflecting” on the suggestion that he should be able to set targets.
“I think institutions’ academic autonomy is powerful,” Professor Ebdon said. “It also means they use their creativity and intellectual power to develop stretching targets which are suitable for their own context, and I believe we can continue to work within that system.”
The Green Paper also proposes that Offa should become part of the new Office for Students. Professor Ebdon said that the directorship must “remain an independent role, appointed directly by the secretary of state and reporting directly to the minister”. The single focus on access must remain, he added, “so that it is not diluted or crowded out by other priorities”.