Offa loses teeth in scrap over bill

June 4, 2004

In a bid to sweeten the HE bill, universities will not be penalised for failing to widen access. Phil Baty reports

The planned access regulator for higher education will have no power to penalise universities that fail to broaden the social background from which they draw their students - as long as they have shown they have tried to open their doors.

The Government this week tabled an amendment to its Higher Education Bill ensuring that the Office for Fair Access will regulate only the effort that universities put into improving their social-class mix, not the results.

The latest concession, which has drawn sharp criticism as a step too far from former higher education minister Baroness Blackstone, is intended to head off a series of amendments designed to remove all regulatory powers from Offa, ahead of next week's report stage for the Bill in the Lords.

The Government's concession follows a strongly supported amendment tabled by Lord Butler of Brockwell, master of University College, Oxford, at the Bill's committee stage in the Lords.

He argued: "The purpose is to remove a fear on the part of institutions - that in a situation when they have done everything that they promised to do in the plan agreed with (Offa) to provide fair access - they could still be penalised because the social mix of the students they admit comes out in a particular way."

Baroness Blackstone attacked the plan. "I am at a loss to understand quite how the Director of Fair Access will decide whether the plans that a university has made to promote access are working if he or she is not allowed to look at the outcome," she said.

"If a university provides all kind of access arrangements, runs summer schools and gets more applications from a wider range of students, that is all well and good. But if it does not accept a wider range of students, that is a problem," she added.

The Government has already conceded that Offa will not interfere in admissions procedures. The amendment says that a governing body "is not to be regarded... as having failed to comply (with Offa) if the governing body shows that it has taken all reasonable steps to comply."

But opposition parties predicted this week that despite the concessions, the Government was facing defeat on a series of stronger amendments designed to make Offa a mere advisory body.

The amendments, tabled jointly by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat frontbench teams, and backed by influential cross-bench peers, would ensure that universities will not have to sign "access agreements" with Offa at all, as planned by the Government. Instead, Offa would simply look at strategic plans already provided to the funding council, and would spread best practice.

"I think we can win this one," said Baroness Perry of Southwark, the Conservative peer and former vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, who first tabled the amendments. "It's crunch time and if I was a betting woman, I would put some money on it."

The two opposition parties outnumber Labour 1 to 182, and also claim to have strong support among the 179 cross-benchers, who have no party affiliation.

Baroness Perry, who was president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, until 2001, said: "We are making it not a regulatory body but an advisory and promotional one."

The Tories and Lib Dems have also united over a number of other key issues.

They have tabled joint amendments that would ensure that all income generated from top-up fees would be "additional" to public funding, preventing the clawback of government funds in a so-called "no snitch" clause. They have united over a move to defer top-up fees for students taking a gap year in 2005.

They are also expecting a serious concession on support for part-time students, who at present will not benefit from the package of student support in the Bill.

The Lib Dems confirmed that they would table an amendment to abolish tuition fees, but it is unlikely to win the support of the House.

Lord Rix, chancellor of the University of East London, has tabled a well-supported amendment that allows for the creation of a national student bursary scheme to ensure that universities with less money and more students in need of bursaries are not unfairly penalised.

Lord Renfrew, the Cambridge professor and Tory Peer, will try to commit the Government to setting up an academic salaries review body to tackle low pay.

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