NUS calls on ‘incompetent’ head of Offa to quit

The National Union of Students has called for the director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa) to resign, accusing him of presiding over a regime of “staggering incompetence”.

July 4, 2009

However, Sir Martin Harris has hit back, insisting that the union has jumped the gun in attacking him for not raising minimum bursary levels after a government announcement on fees and student support earlier this week.

On 1 July, David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, announced that fees are to increase by just over 2 per cent next year while maintenance support for full-time students will not change. He said this reflected the “low-inflationary environment”.

The NUS then accused Offa of failing to respond by raising minimum bursary levels, claiming that poorer students will no longer be fully supported.

The union said that the Government had set out the duties of Offa in 2004, requiring it to ensure that any difference between the level of top-up fees and the maximum student loan was covered by bursaries. After this week’s announcement, the maximum grant level will remain at £2,906 and the fee cap will rise to £3,290.

This leaves a gap of £384, the NUS said, yet the minimum bursary will stay at £319 – creating a potential shortfall of £65 a year.

Wes Streeting, president of the NUS, claimed that Offa was “toothless” and “curled up in the laps of vested interests”.

“It is quite clear that it has entirely failed to deliver on the objectives with which it has been entrusted and has been utterly discredited by its staggering incompetence in undertaking its duty to ensure fair access,” he said.

“I have no confidence in the current leadership of Offa and Sir Martin Harris.”

Responding to Mr Streeting’s claims, Sir Martin said: “We found out about the changes in student support levels on Wednesday at the same time as everybody else and are now considering the detail and the implications for bursaries.

“We have made no decision and no announcement on minimum bursary levels for next year – a point we have made absolutely clear to the NUS. It is utterly irresponsible to claim otherwise.”

He continued: “Our excellent working relationships and ongoing dialogue with universities and colleges have resulted in extremely generous support for lower-income students and other under-represented groups – far more generous than might otherwise have been the case.”

He added: “About four fifths of universities offer in excess of the minimum bursary – the average bursary for students in receipt of the full state maintenance grant is around £900.”

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