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March 08, 2011

OFFA, tuition fees, poor students and the homeopath

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons students from the poorest 30 per cent of families will be worse off under the government's university reforms. And in the guidance issued to universities today by the Office for Fair Access, OFFA openly worries that such potential students will turn away from higher education. But the guidance itself comes at the end of a chain of dilutions that work against the interests of these disadvantaged young people.

The chain starts with Liberal Democrats like Vince Cable promising to vote against any rise in fees.

This was diluted to voting for a sharp rise in fees, but with the promise to MPs in the crunch debate by Cable that, "any university that wants to go beyond £6,000 will have to satisfy very demanding tests of access for low-income families".

This in turn was diluted twice over in the guidance sent to OFFA by Cable last month. Thick layers of rhetoric about "outcomes" were undermined by a substantive focus on "outreach", and the concentration on poor students was weakened by providing new targets for universities to hit among groups such as “care leavers“.

Now the OFFA guidance pours more cold water into the mix.

There is no requirement for universities to include anything about admissions in their access targets. Instead, they can stick to talking to 14-year olds about GCSE choices.

Elite universities with bad access stats are expected to spend 35 per cent of their income over £6,000 on access measures. For a university charging £9,000 a year, that's a hefty £1,000 per entrant. But it's only guidance, not binding and universities can (and, they tell me, will) ignore it.

There is in short, no test on access for students from poor families of any kind that universities will have to pass to get their fees over £6,000 - let alone the "very demanding" one Cable promised.

And the dilution doesn't even stop there. OFFA's regime applies to universities. But at Oxbridge admissions are in the hands of the colleges, and they don't have to agree to anything at all.

OFFAs head, Martin Harris, is doing the media round today. But why would anyone want to talk to him? Cable would make a much more interesting guest. Vince appears to have invented the world's first homeopathic policy. The promise to protect students from poor families has been diluted so far that on any objective measure it no longer exists, yet he still apparently believes it will have some effect.

[See Research Fortnight Today later for my interview with Harris]


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Interesting post, but your comment about Oxbridge admissions is not correct. I am sure that Oxford and Cambridge will both be drawing up access agreements that will apply to their university-wide admissions; and I am sure that the agreements will be focussed, as OFFA suggest, on targets which are meaningful and which will represent a real commitment to access. http://bit.ly/fdWxxz.

David, thanks for your comment but I'm not sure what you think is incorrect. It was Martin Harris who pointed out to me yesterday the university-college disjunction at Oxford and Cambridge. The Offa writ runs only to the university. The colleges make the decisions on admissions.

I suspect you are under the impression that the Oxford access agreement will deal with admissions. It could yet. But as of today there's no obligation on it to do so. And personally, I very much doubt it will. The Russell Group has been straining every sinew to avoid that obligation.

Your link goes to a page dealing with financial support, which is not exactly a red herring but is a long way from the meat of things. Offa itself suggests bursaries often make little or no difference.

William - this was also my take on reading the announcement this morning. OFFA seems to be allowing Unis to do what they like, either not wanting to risk forcing the elite into going private, or as you suggested previously, because they lack the legal powers necessary to enforce their wishes. Whether one views OFFA as sensible or toothless probably depends on your politics, and it will be interesting to see if this is where it all ends.

Thanks Stephen. I guess i think OFFA can be both sensible and toothless. There's nothing wrong with an agency to encourage universities along in doing more. Fine. But that is very different from making sure things actually get better. OFFA can't be both toothless and a vigilent champion for students from poor families.

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