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.
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]