|Lords make trouble over
Monday June 14, 2004
The government is today facing a series of challenges to the proposed Office for Fair Access (Offa) from opposition and crossbench peers concerned about threats to university autonomy and academic freedom. Some are expected to pass—creating another headache for ministers in getting the troublesome higher education fees bill into law.
Offa—dubbed "Off-toff" by opponents—was included in the bill by the education secretary, Charles Clarke, in an effort to win over Labour backbenchers to support top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year by prompting the universities to recruit students from a wider range of backgrounds. The tactic worked in the Commons where the bill squeaked through by five votes, but in the Lords the problem for ministers is the opposite—peers are generally in favour of tuition fees but hostile to any attempts by the government to intervene in university admissions.
An amendment from former Conservative minister Lord Forsyth seeks to prevent Offa discriminating against pupils from independent schools. He is also backing an amendment by Baroness Perry, principal of Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge, the former principal of Edinburgh University, Lord Sutherland, and the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman, Baroness Sharp, which will make it a duty for Offa "to protect academic freedom, including the right of institutions to determine the criteria and the application of that criteria for the admission of students, and the selection and appointment of academic staff". They also want to prevent Offa referring to particular courses of study or research - either the content or teaching methods.
Baroness Perry is due to move another amendment drastically limiting Offa's remit. Instead of being able to insist that universities take measures to attract applications from students in "under-represented" groups (working class, some ethnic minorities, for instance), Offa would only be able to urge universities to "attract applications from as wide as possible a number of prospective students" and to provide financial assistance to students.
She said today her aim was to remove the "regulatory and punitive approach" of the bill and drop Offa's proposed power to fine universities. The former head of South Bank Polytechnic, which prided itself in taking working class and mature students, Baroness Perry said institutions needed to be genuinely committed to these applicants and not just go through the motions to avoid a fine.
She said the bill would still leave Offa able to prevent a university charging fees if its plan to widen access was unsatisfactory. "I'm taking away the very tight regulations in the bill and taking away the punitive powers of the director of Offa," she told EducationGuardian.co.uk.
A right of appeal against decisions by Offa is being proposed by Lord Sutherland, backed by the Tories, in a move that would further circumscribe the new body's freedom of manoeuvre.