Offa remit will not include 'power to tackle access failures'

October 29, 2004

Universities will not be penalised if they fail to meet their own milestones for enrolling more students from poor backgrounds, the Government confirmed this week.

Academic institutions will also be able to appeal against decisions made by the new access watchdog, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, says in guidance sent to Sir Martin Harris, head of the Office for Fair Access.

The limited powers of Offa were unveiled amid renewed attacks on the watchdog by the Conservatives.

In Belfast, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, repeated his party's pledge to abolish the access regulator. He said: "Universities should be free to admit whom they like (and) students should be judged on merit - on their ability, on their potential."

Meanwhile, introducing a debate in the House of Commons on "political interference in university admissions", Tim Collins, the Shadow Education Secretary, said it was "extremely unfortunate" that Sir Martin described himself as "resolutely old Labour". Mr Collins said: "It is worrying that a person who will wield considerable power over our universities... should think this country needs an old-fashioned class war. That is the last thing this nation needs."

But Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, said admissions "should and will remain the sole responsibility of institutions".

He added: "Students must be admitted to university solely on the basis of merit and potential. The challenge facing universities and colleges is how to measure this. Sir Martin Harris will be able to have this discussion with each individual university... to try to understand how they can be more stretched in reaching out to communities.

"That is not the same as saying he will have any power whatsoever to force universities to adopt new admissions policies," he said.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Education Select Committee and MP for Huddersfield, reminded Dr Howells that the committee did not regard Offa as necessary.

"Everything he has said in his speech suggests that Offa does not really have a role. Is it therefore a substitute - an expensive one - for a good chat in the Athenaeum?" he asked. "(Dr Howells) has not convinced me and other Labour members that Offa still has a role."

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