Lords want weaker Offa

May 7, 2004

Conservative peers moved to "draw the teeth" of the planned university access regulator, Offa, ahead of the higher education bill's House of Lords committee stage next week.

Tory frontbench peer Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and Baroness Perry of Southwark have tabled a series of motions designed to erode the powers and remit of the Office for Fair Access.

Baroness Perry said: "We want to curb the powers of Offa by making it an advisory body, not a regulatory body. And we will seek to take it out of the hands of the secretary of state and make it accountable to Parliament."

The Tory bid to ensure that Offa is not able to interfere with universities' academic autonomy is echoed by an amendment still expected from Labour peer Baroness Warwick, on behalf of Universities UK, of which she is chief executive.

One Tory amendment to the legislation governing Offa would ensure that the access regulator could not "frame his advice by reference to particular courses of study or programmes of research or criteria for the selection and appointment of academic staff and for the admission of students."

The Tories have also tabled amendments to try to ensure more scrutiny by Parliament over a number of delegated powers, following a report from the influential House of Lords' select committee on delegated powers.

The committee reported last week that under the bill as it stands, there is no criteria, or minimum or maximum limit, for the financial sanctions Offa will be able to impose on errant universities. The committee said that these issues should be decided by the "affirmative" action of Parliament, after full parliamentary scrutiny.

As The Times Higher went to press, the Conservative team had not tabled any amendments on the provisions to allow universities to charge top-up tuition fees of up to £3,000, which the party officially opposes despite support for the measures among prominent Conservative peers.

A spokesman said the policy remained the same, but the party was still working on a number of further amendments ahead of the May 7 deadline. The first committee stage of the bill will be on Monday.

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