The opening shots in what is expected to be the key battleground of the higher education bill in the House of Lords were fired this week, as the planned regulator for university access came under attack from Natfhe.
As peers prepared for the debate on the plans for the regulator during the second reading of the bill next week, they were warned that the Office of Fair Access could damage the drive to widen participation in higher education by allowing elitist universities to do less to open their doors to poor students.
The parliamentary briefing paper on Offa from lecturers' union Natfhe prompted a sharp response from Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, who rebutted the claims.
Natfhe argues that the legally binding access agreements that universities will be required to sign with Offa before they can charge top-up fees will be less demanding than existing arrangements monitored by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It says: "It is clear the access agreements will potentially be less far-reaching, and require institutions to do less in relation to widening participation, than the strategies they submit to Hefce."
The union is concerned that the government has confirmed in its draft letter of guidance that the access agreements will "subsume the current strategies on widening participation, which institutions already provide to Hefce".
The government's guidance is clear that the access agreements will focus on two key areas: ensuring universities are sufficiently engaged in outreach work in communities of non-traditional students with lower participation rates; and ensuring that appropriate bursary systems are in place (a minimum of £300 per student) to provide financial support to those who may be deterred by the cost of studying.
But the access agreements will not apply to institutions that decide not to charge top-up fees above the fixed charge of £1,000 a year, and it will not apply to part-time students - who make up a third of the student population.
Natfhe says in its briefing that the previous arrangements for widening access, which will be "subsumed" by Offa, are stronger and much more comprehensive.
Under the old system, Hefce approved each university's access strategy as a condition of their teaching grant. The strategies cover key areas of widening participation activity not covered by Offa, such as work to cut dropout rates on courses where students experience difficulties staying on.
A Hefce report, The Costs of Widening Participation in Higher Education , warns that many institutions have only emergent strategies for widening access. This group "includes most of the pre-1992 universities, many of whom claim to treat widening participation seriously, although some report that they have only just begun to do so".
The report identifies six key activities for widening access, including work to reduce the dropout rate, moves to provide and promote flexible learning with different course entry points and credit-transfer options, and the establishment of non-traditional ways of delivering learning, such as distance-learning courses. None of these activities is covered by Offa.
The higher education bill could stand or fall in the Lords on the role of the regulator. The Liberal Democrats claim it lacks sufficient teeth, while many Tory peers believe it is too prescriptive.
In a detailed response to Natfhe, Mr Johnson admits that the planned access agreements "could be more specific, but less broad" than the Hefce strategies that will be replaced. But he says the union "may be overstating the benefits of strategy documents".
"The widening participation strategies that Hefce demanded were never envisaged as detailed business plans for every institution," he says. "In that sense, the parts of an access agreement that will be monitored by Offa will be more specific and rigorous. An access agreement is a legally binding document. If it is not complied with, we expect Offa to take vigorous action, and it has significant powers."