This is the tenth of fifteen draft Bills in an Alternative Queen's Speech that sets out what a legislative programme might have looked like if a majority Conservative government had been elected. Read more about the initiative here.
The Education Select Committee opposed the appointment of Les Ebden to head the Office of Fair Access (OFFA).
Vince Cable appointed him nonetheless, which provoked a furore. But the problem with OFFA lies deeper, and is one of powers rather than personalities.
OFFA is tasked with measuring university admissions against social targets in order to ensure that more students from poorer backgrounds enter higher education. If universities are judged to fall short, they can face financial sanctions of up to £500,000 or be refused permission to charge above £6,000 in annual fees.
This is using the wrong means to achieve the right end. The best way of raising the participation rate of disadvantaged pupils is to raise school performance. The worst is to rely instead on a regime of targets and fines, which can be unjust to individual students and are dangerous for universities.
As the Fair Access Group of MPs has put it, present policy “has clear implications for universities’ admissions policies, putting pressure on institutions to apply their admissions procedures with reference to social, rather than purely academic considerations.” University standards and their international ratings are under threat.
OFFA was established by the Higher Education Act 2004. This should speedily be amended to provide safeguards for Universities – stating unambiguously that no action OFFA may take to enhance social mobility or fair access can compromise their independence. OFFA's sanctions regime should simultaneously be overhauled.