Simon Hughes' diagnosis of the problem with the current regime of the Office for Fair Access is acute. It allows universities, he said at a press conference yesterday, to "aspire and fail".
So long as they have sincerely tried to help potential students who are poor or disadvantaged in other ways, universities will not be punished by OFFA even if the number of students they actually admit from these groups goes down.
The remedy proposed by the government's "Access Advocate" in his report to the Prime Minister is to shift the focus from inputs to outputs:
"OFFA should ... assess HEIs' annual progress on access and widening participation by measuring results against objective benchmarks rather than by statements of future intent," he argues.
The "bit of a stick", as Hughes put it, could be fnancial penalties for failure to achieve results. His report goes on, "The 2004 Higher Education Act would need to be amended if financial penalties were to be imposed on the failure to meet more objective criteria."
If implemented, Hughes' proposals would certainly mark a tightening of the OFFA regime. But it woud not quite be a move to targets for students from poor families.
First, Hughes has not actually used the word "targets", leaving some wiggle room.
Second, Hughes has not said anything about what kind of "results" he wants to see. Even if universities meet the objectives for admissions that they have set themselves for admissions in their new access agreements with OFFA it is not clear that the number of poor students will go up. Even if Hughes' scheme is implemented, OFFA could continue to demand "results" which don't include more students from poor families.
On this point, it was disappointing to hear Hughes repeating the line that identifying students from poor families is complicated. In fact, nothing could be simpler. Anyone remotely capable of being counted in these stats will fill out a student loan form, which teases out in excruciating detail precisely the income of their family.
Third, Hughes has not quite said that the regime should be changed to allow financial penalties for poor results. That point is left ambiguous in his report.
So - despite a genuinely tougher regime for universities and more help for kids at school - it seems universities could still happily admit fewer students from poor families even if Hughes's proposals were implemented, though he said this is something that would need to be kept under review.
As I warned last week, Hughes is pushing for these reforms to come through in the legislation implementing the white paper. But who will carry the work through remains a mystery as his role as Access Advocate is now coming to an end. He was enigmatic about this issue at the press conference.
The report in total is over 50 pages long and includes 33 recommendations, most of which are focused on schools. By the time you read this, it should be available online.