Leading article: Government, keep out

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The Independent Online

The universities are breathing a sigh of relief at the appointment of Sir Martin Harris, the former vice-chancellor of Manchester University, to the directorship of the Office for Fair Access (Offa). He is one of them, someone who understands the universities and their dislike of government interference. At his first press conference this week, he was trying to show he would be a pussycat - there would be no predetermined benchmarks or targets, no social engineering, no interference in admissions. So far, so good. At the same time, however, he called for universities to invest 20 per cent of their additional income in bursaries. That would give more than £200m each year to support people who are under-represented in higher education, he said.

Some universities are, however, fed up that they are being told how much to spend on bursaries by Sir Martin, especially as that is much more than they expected to spend. When the Higher Education Bill was going through Parliament, ministers told the universities that they would be obliged to give a minimum of £300 to the poorest students, but that otherwise it would be up to them what they did to support widening access. Now, Sir Martin is being more prescriptive.

In fact, the new director of fair access expects universities that do badly in recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to offer larger bursaries than those that do better. But his 20 per cent message sends out a strong signal and universities may think that if they spend less than 20 per cent of their precious new money from top-up fees on bursaries they will receive a sharp letter from Sir Martin asking them some hard questions.

The fact is that much depends on who is in the job of director of fair access. The Offa apparatus was established in response to pressure from Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, to make the Higher Education Bill acceptable to Labour backbenchers. Universities wanting to charge top-up fees would have to show that they were trying to recruit more disadvantaged candidates. Historically, British universities have had a poor record on this. That has been changing in recent years. Most universities really do want to be more socially inclusive. The big question is the extent to which they can do so while still taking the best prepared candidates. Sir Martin is expected to be realistic about this.