Is this our best Offa?

February 27, 2004

Before we can begin to ensure 'fair access', we have to define the term, argues Graham Allen.

For reasons that no one has fully explained, my constituency, Nottingham North, sends fewer of its young people into further and higher education than any other in England. However, under government proposals youngsters from two-thirds of families in my area would qualify for the full Pounds 3,000-a-year grant if they achieved the appropriate grades.

That is why, having restored the student grant and abolished upfront fees, the most important part of the government's higher education bill is the establishment of the Office for Fair Access and its aim to make the higher education market accountable to national needs.

To achieve this, it needs a clear remit and the power and resources to act on its own initiative. This contrasts with the "light touch" requested by vice-chancellors, who for 40 years have delivered a university education to a static and scandalous 20 per cent of working-class kids. Youngsters should go to university on merit - replacing the current rigged market with another one would not be progress. All my constituents need is a fair chance.

To properly integrate universities into our education system, we need them to be inspected by Ofsted. However, last year's consultative paper on widening participation suggested that Offa would not have any inspection capability but would merely enter into "access agreements" with any institution that wished to charge more than the standard fee for any course.

Offa was intended to be a reactive body. The universities themselves would devise their own access agreements according to what they deemed "necessary to achieve their widening participation ambitions", and choose the milestones and indicators that would be used to monitor progress. Offa would then decide whether the institution was making a genuine effort to apply these.

This is a curious role and, I think, unique. Most regulators operate from a statutory framework of rules and ensure that those affected comply with them. Offa, it seems, will let the institutions write their own rules and then decide whether they are acceptable. This will draw cynical chortles from school heads and further education principals who have recent Ofsted experience.

It was also initially proposed that the education secretary would write to the head of Offa with intermittent revisions, setting out Offa's statutory duties and how they were to be met.

But this presupposed a statute giving Offa a clear set of principles to work to. Unfortunately, the higher education bill does not achieve this. It gives the Offa director a duty to "promote and safeguard fair access to higher education" but contains no definition of the highly debatable term "fair access" and leaves Offa's criteria either to future regulations, which Parliament may not be able to amend, or to future guidance, which Parliament may not even see in advance.

Offa's mission is so important that I believe it should be defined on the face of the bill and debated fully by Parliament.

That is why I have tabled amendments to define the key concept of "fair access" - to ensure that Offa is guided by equality legislation and tackles covert and overt barriers to access, and to give Parliament, the universities and the public the chance to discuss how Offa should work.

I would also like to see Offa given the power and money to act on its own initiative rather than simply react to what the universities set before it.

Offa could do a great deal to make young people think about further and higher education and address the complex factors that keep them from pursuing it. More than that, universities should be a part of the local education system helping to raise local standards.

I hope that the government will take on my concerns. By doing so, it would remove uncertainty and ensure that Offa helps to achieve its intended reform of making higher education available to all who qualify for it.

Graham Allen is MP for Nottingham North and a member of the standing committee on higher education.

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