In 2004, the Labour government introduced a new, higher limit for student fees in universities, from just over £1,000 per year to £3,000.
Battling strong resistance from many of its own back-benchers, they added a new office to ensure that increasing the costs of a university education would be balanced by an increase in the access activities of each university charging the higher fee. The 2004 Higher Education Act created OFFA to monitor access activities in the universities, and to require regular returns as to the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who had been admitted.
Crucially, section 32 of the 2004 Act, while laying upon OFFA the duty to increase access, also required its Director to protect academic freedom, including the freedom of institutions to determine the criteria for the admission of students and the application of those criteria in particular cases. Up until this year, OFFA has religiously followed that requirement.
The coalition government, facing again the need to increase student fees, has also sought to allay fears of restricted access. Here one pauses to say that the background of the student at the time of entering higher university should have no bearing on that student's ability to pay back the loan incurred after graduation. No-one need pay up front for their university education, and repayment will only start when the graduate is earning above average salary. Nevertheless, there is anxiety about access, and the coalition government has asked OFFA to agree contracts with each university charging above £6,000, laying out what they will do to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they admit. They will be asked to determine and agree a target for such students, and if they fail to deliver, OFFA will deny them the right to charge the higher fee, and can fine them a substantial sum. In many cases, this would force the university into bankruptcy.
My concern is the effect this will have on the behaviour of admissions tutors across the sector. Once the 'contract' has been agreed, it effectively becomes a target every bit as rigorous as the discredited quota system which the US imposed in the 1980s.Is this requirement, and the new power it gives to OFFA, truly consistent with section 32 of the 2004 Act? Is it also consistent with the coalition's promise to trust professionals and not micro-manage?
Academic freedom is a delicate plant, yet it is one of the pillars of a free society. Just because the issue of fair access is one of which we all approve, using it as a tool to take away from universities their right of self-determination can't be justified. Our leading universities, Cambridge, Oxford and the great names of the Russell Group compete in a world-wide market for the best and brightest students, teachers and researchers. No-one should ask them to lower standards for the sake of rectifying the failures of our education system, nor interfere with their hard-won position as the champions of free speech.