Not for the first time in the past year, the government's rhetoric on access to higher education has far surpassed its actions. Last week's White Paper had some encouraging news. However, the timidity that characterised April's social mobility strategy remains - coupled now with contradictions that could fundamentally undermine work on access to higher education.
On the positive side, the increase in resources for the Office for Fair Access is welcome and essential. It will have little effect, however, if it does not come with the power to influence what institutions do. The priority that universities place on access is almost exactly calibrated with the extent to which it aligns with their own strategic goals. Offa must be able to make access fundamental to these goals - otherwise we rely on the altruism of institutions. In the competitive environment the White Paper ushers in, altruism will be scarce.
The paper suggests a number of possible new powers for Offa, including specifying levels of institutional investment in access and "naming and shaming" access recalcitrants. Ensuring adequate investment is necessary but not sufficient. Offa should be able to give more specific instructions to universities regarding their access work. This is not the micromanagement that universities so dislike but rather the power to improve practice by supporting the long-overdue professionalisation of access work.
How would this be done? Offa should insist that to be allowed to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 a year, universities must ensure that staff involved in access are appropriately accredited and their practice is quality assured against benchmarks. These standards should not be developed by Offa. They are better constructed by a more organised, coherent access community led by universities and others. Naming and shaming could be powerful, but it has to be done constructively and fairly. If it is not, the potential for public reputational damage could deter many academics from giving their time to access work.
The eye-catching bit of the White Paper is the introduction of competition for well-qualified applicants. It is here that the big access contradiction exists. The document makes those with A-level grades of AAB or above the most valuable students - yet it also celebrates the efforts of one university that has used contextual data to enable access to very competitive courses when students have grades of CCC. What incentives will there be to use contextual data and make offers that reflect the background and nature of students whose grades are below the magic AAB threshold?
This, however, is not the only contradiction. The paper places huge emphasis on helping potential students choose the right course and university via the new Key Information Set. It then talks up the new national careers service. But the evidence suggests that the latter reform will lead to a big reduction in face-to-face careers support and qualified staff in schools. Those who will suffer most will be the potential students whose families, schools or colleges have little experience of higher education: they will be offered more information but far less support in interpreting it.
On the subject of access, a higher education White Paper can tell only half the story - schools policy is absolutely crucial. The reference to a destinations measure stating how many of a school's pupils progress to higher education is encouraging. But there is nothing to enable the intra- and inter-sector collaboration that Aimhigher created. Many universities are involved in initiating post-Aimhigher access networks. They need more support. Here, the government could be more creative and tie access into the rest of its strategy by rewarding such collaborations - ones in which, for example, universities competing for students with AAB grades work together to encourage applications from high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds. Why stop there though? The White Paper states that soon the majority of places will be secured competitively. Restricting or preventing institutions that fail to deliver on their access agreements from taking part in the competition would be a real sanction worth having for Offa.
This paper could still offer more for access. It is time to be bolder. We need less talk and for the government to put its policies where its mouth is.