Offa's life may be short, says head

December 2, 2005

The Office for Fair Access may not have a long-term future in its present form, its director has told The Times Higher .

Sir Martin Harris believes the access watchdog, which works to ensure disadvantaged students receive bursaries and support for tuition fees, may not need to exist as a separate legal entity in future.

But Sir Martin is adamant that Offa's role - to encourage university applications from underrepresented students - should continue, albeit under the aegis of another body. He hopes such widening access work could be applied internationally to boost numbers of underrepresented students attending university in other countries.

Offa, which receives £500,000 from the public purse each year, was established over a year ago under the Higher Education Act 2004. It was created to ensure that the introduction of tuition fees in 2006 does not have a detrimental effect on widening participation.

Sir Martin said: "Offa was established as a legal entity because people were very anxious about the prospect of higher fees.

"It may not have a long-term future in its present form. But its functions of encouraging fair access and ensuring a student support mechanism need to continue."

His comments came with the publication this week of Offa's five-year strategic plan.

Since last November universities have had to submit to the regulator their bursary plans for underrepresented students.

Now that bursary schemes are being finalised, Offa's role is likely to change. Some believe it is a matter of years before Offa's role is absorbed into the remit of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Sir Martin said: "This has been a year of experiments. I see our role changing to help, advise, guide and to be an example for international higher education. We can contribute to and learn from international best practice."

In the next five years, Offa will also scrutinise how easy it is for students to find out about about bursaries and support.

Sir Martin said: "As 2006 fast approaches, the attention is shifting from the decisions made by institutions about levels of bursaries to decisions made by students about where to apply. It will therefore be a main priority for institutions to ensure clarity and accessibility of financial information for prospective students, their parents, carers and advisers.

"The introduction of variable fees in 2006 will no doubt bring about a change. The two key messages - that substantial maintenance support is available and that fees can be deferred - are getting across. The work is not finished yet though."

Offa's remit includes full-time, European Union and undergraduate students.

It does not regulate tuition fees for part-time, overseas or postgraduate students.

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

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