The government faced renewed opposition to forthcoming top-up fee legislation this week after failing to appease Labour Party opponents with details of a university access regulator, described as toothless and a sop to vice-chancellors eager to raise fees.
Ministers had hoped that the new independent watchdog, the Office for Fair Access (Offa), would placate those who claim that top-up fees of up to £3,000, to be introduced in 2006, will deter poor applicants.
Universities must submit agreements to the regulator that prove they are taking measures to improve access, such as providing bursaries for poor students. Offa will be able to prevent universities from charging top-up fees or fine them if the measures are not considered satisfactory or a university is found to be in breach of its original agreement.
The government announced the regulator in January's higher education white paper. The detailed remit says Offa's role is to "promote wider access and to ensure that admissions procedures are fair, professional and transparent". It adds that the regulator will be responsible for extending good practice through a more rigorous admissions regime.
But, speaking at Tuesday's launch of the access proposals, education secretary Charles Clarke said that while a separate best-practice guide on admissions would be produced by Brunel University vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz, the regulator would have no control over university admissions.
Mr Clarke said Offa would have the power to fine universities, but only as a measure of the last resort.
Backbench Labour MPs said the new body failed to live up to government claims. They promised to oppose legislation due to be introduced in parliament next year. Ian Gibson, chairman of the Commons' science and technology committee, said: "This is a sop to vice-chancellors. They have allowed them off the hook. Offa is not going to be in a position to ensure that admissions to universities involve people from lower socioeconomic groups."
Backbencher Paul Farrelly, whose early-day motion opposing top-up fees in the last parliamentary session attracted 170, mainly Labour, signatories, said Offa was a shadow of the regulator announced in the white paper.
He said: "It is baffling that Offa will have no remit over a university's admissions policies and procedures and yet is supposed to be more than a toothless tiger."
Speaking at the launch, Mr Clarke said that the regulator's role was to drive up applications from disadvantaged people, particularly to top research institutions, rather than to hold universities accountable for the numbers of such students they admitted.
He said universities' admissions policies were generally in good shape, but he left open the possibility that admissions could be rolled under the regulator's remit if progress on applications from disadvantaged groups did not translate into admissions.
Mr Clarke said: "We believe it is a light-touch regime... and we believe we are hitting the right target in hitting aspirations and applications as the key problem in getting the proper level of engagement in universities from all sections of the population."
Vice-chancellors are broadly supportive of a light-touch route to top-up fees. They hope to ensure agreements are sufficiently robust for initial approval by the regulator but not so ambitious as to risk institutions being unable to deliver on agreements and so face fines.
But post-1992 universities are worried that all universities need to guarantee bursaries, funded from top-up fee income, as part of their access agreements. Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, gave the regulator a cautious welcome but added: "As all CMU institutions recruit very substantial numbers of students from the lower socioeconomic groups, this requirement could dramatically reduce even further the amount of money available to improve our quality of teaching and hence the student experience."
Speaking to The THES after the announcement, higher education minister Margaret Hodge said the government would not determine the level of bursaries required at each institution. She said this would be an "issue of judgement" for the regulator. She added that no decision had yet been taken on how to calculate any fines.
The regulator will be part of a raft of white-paper measures requiring legislation. Ministers hope that Offa will be running by 2005. The Department for Education and Skills is inviting comments on the proposals by June 2.