Peers have left the Government's plans for a university access regulator in tatters after forcing a string of amendments to the Higher Education Bill this week.
After a tense stand-off on Monday evening, seven amendments were carried in the Lords that have the cumulative effect of removing almost all regulatory and punitive powers from the planned Office for Fair Access.
The amendments were carried by 142 to 122, despite significant concessions by the Government and warnings that its plans for Offa were a non-negotiable part of the Bill to introduce top-up fees.
The amendments, which will meet strong Government resistance when the Bill returns to the House of Commons later this month, would:
* Ensure that universities do not have to agree formal plans with Offa outlining how they intend to widen their pool of students
* Subsume universities' access plans into the routine, wider strategic plans already produced for the Higher Education Funding Council for England
* Remove Offa's power to punish universities that fail to carry out access initiatives
* Ensure that the director of fair access is appointed under Civil Service rules to forestall appointment of a Government "crony".
Proposing the amendments, Tory backbencher Baroness Perry said: "We believe that Offa will be more effective as a promotional body than as one that controls by regulation and by punishment."
The moves were opposed by Lord Dearing, the author of the 1997 review of higher education, and Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK.
Lord Forsyth, the Conservative frontbench education spokesman, said that the Government had produced the Bill to introduce top-up fees but that the price was "an attack on the independence of the universities by the establishment of Offa".
Baroness Ashton, the Government's education spokeswoman in the Lords, said:
"We see the creation of access plans, and their approval and enforcement, as absolutely fundamental to our package of proposals in this Bill."
The prospect of legislative ping-pong between the Commons and the Lords could push the Government into further concessions to get the Bill on to the statute books before the summer recess begins on July 22.
There was some good news for the Government as it headed off another potential revolt over the issue of equality for part-time students, who would not receive the same package of financial support proposed for full-time students.
Baroness Ashton said that Hefce had commended a "comprehensive review" of the teaching funding methodology and that part-time issues would form an "important and integral" part of it. Hefce will consult on principles during 2005 in time to implement a system for 2006. But she did not concede to a Liberal Democrat move to ensure that Offa has an explicit remit to safeguard access for part-time students as well as full time.