Sutton Trust: keep Offa independent and boost its powers

The university access watchdog must remain an independent body and should be given “real teeth”, according to an influential education charity.

December 22, 2010

In a briefing published today, the Sutton Trust argues against the Browne Review’s proposal to merge the Office for Fair Access with the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Rather, it argues that public confidence in Offa’s independence needs to be strengthened through the creation of a board that includes representatives from outside the academy.

The charity has also said that universities should be required to spend 25 per cent or more of their additional income from fees on outreach work to encourage applications from poorer students.

And it warned that the government’s national scholarship programme should not be used solely to financially support students who were entitled to free school meals, as it would have little impact.

Earlier this month, the government published a draft copy of a guidance letter to Offa, which says that no changes will be made to the organisation’s statutory powers, despite ministers’ earlier promises to impose tougher requirements on universities charging higher fees.

The government has also suggested that universities charging more than £6,000 a year should fund a year of tuition for undergraduates who once qualified for free school meals, with a second year of tuition funded via the £150 million national scholarship fund.

However, the proposal has caused concern because universities attracting a greater proportion of students from poorer backgrounds would face additional costs.

In today’s briefing, the Sutton Trust warns that the sector is entering a “completely new and uncertain landscape for university access” thanks to the introduction of fees up to £9,000 from 2012 and the axing of AimHigher, the national outreach programme.

The charity fears that higher fees in England are likely to deter future students from low- and middle-income backgrounds.

“This makes university outreach work even more important over the coming years,” the briefing states.

The charity believes that universities should agree targets with Offa over a five-year period, based on a “basket” of measures for widening participation.

“Universities would be rewarded for the amount of quality widening-participation work they undertake, but would not be held directly accountable for the numbers of pupils going into higher education – as so many other factors will impact on their destinations. Universities might also be given responsibility to engage with a set number of schools in the locality,” the briefing explains.

If a university fails to make sufficient progress on access targets, Offa would publish details of its concerns and as a final step, a proportion of the university's fee income would be diverted into a central access fund.

Under access agreements, each university should also take into account the educational context of applicants to inform its admissions policies, the Sutton Trust argues.

Meanwhile, to improve the impact of future work, the destinations of all pupils who take part in outreach schemes should be tracked and monitored, it says.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

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