Is the Government getting involved in deciding who should be admitted to university? Will it effectively be prescribing the kind of students that institutions can take? Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, is adamant that it isn't. But many vice-chancellors think the opposite. They will be voicing their concern with some passion at today's residential meeting of Universities UK (UUK) in London. Some are determined to oppose ministers' latest plans.
The argument arises from last week's publication of the draft regulations and guidance on the Office of Fair Access (Offa), the body originally dubbed Oftoff, which is being set up to allay Labour backbench fears that top-up fees will deter poorer students from applying to university. Offa will make access agreements with universities wanting to charge top-up fees to guarantee that they have measures in place, such as bursaries or plans to reach out to disadvantaged schools, to ensure that poorer students keep applying.
Last week's news was that this body will have real teeth: the power to fine universities £500,000 if they fail to stick to their access agreements, and the power to stop universities charging extra fees at all if they fail to provide the bursaries they have promised or if they charge more than they said they were going to.
Both old and new universities are horrified at the tone and content of the plans, even though the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has made it clear that they apply primarily to the old universities, who already have fewer students from the poorest backgrounds. The department says that the old universities will be expected to do more than the minimum of a £300 bursary to attract applications.
"Access agreements are not about dictating admissions policies and Offa will not have any power over university admissions," says Clarke. The universities, however, remain unconvinced.
Professor Michael Sterling, the chairman of the Russell Group of research intensive universities, says that the access agreements are bound to influence admissions and not simply applications, as the Education Secretary suggests, because they cover measures to attract less disadvantaged students. And the only way a university knows that it has too few is because it falls below the benchmark calculated by the Higher Education Funding Council.
"This is about admissions," says Professor Sterling. "It's a nonsense to say it's about applications. The main objective of universities must be to admit the best people. Anything else is discrimination. If we go down the road of biasing admissions processes to admit certain groups of people into certain courses, we will be accused of discriminating."
Professor Malcolm Grant, the provost of University College London, is pressing for action by UUK. He wants the Government to provide an assurance that universities will remain in charge of their admissions and says that this should be written into the regulations. "The universities must proclaim very loudly that, if there is interference, it will undermine our universities internationally," he says.
The signs are that the universities will do what they can to get the Higher Education Bill amended in the Lords, which contains a number of former vice-chancellors and others who guard university autonomy jealously, plus the Conservatives who set their face against Offa from the start.
Not surprisingly, the vice-chancellors are deeply hostile to the possibility of being fined £500,000 for reneging on access agreements. David Melville, the vice-chancellor of Kent University, believes that fines are "entirely wrong". Preventing universities from charging fees is enough of a threat for breaching an access agreement, he believes.
"No government body should be thinking about fining higher education institutions," he says. "You may as well fine schools for failing to produce students with A-levels good enough to get them to university."
One might expect the new universities to be neutral because the plan won't affect them much (they already take a large proportion of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds), but in fact they agree with their colleagues in the old institutions. According to Professor Michael Driscoll, the vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of the Campaign for Mainstream Universities, which represents the former polytechnics, the plan is "a big intrusion into the admissions processes of universities".
He is concerned that it will mean more regulation of the sector and he is concerned that the creation of another regulatory body in addition to the Higher Education Funding Council and the new director general in the DfES will lead to confusion.
Professor Mike Thorne, the vice-chancellor of the University of East London, is against the idea because he thinks it will mean that disadvantaged students who are admitted to a university through an access programme will be tarred with the social-engineering brush. "People will be able to say to them: 'You are only here to meet the targets and to stop our university being fined.'"
The big question is whether Offa, when it is set up and has a director, will act in a draconian way. According to the DfES, universities would not be fined for failing to close the social class gap in universities; they would only be fined for reneging on their access agreements. "That is only going to happen in extreme circumstances," said a spokesman.
The establishment of Offa has been seen by many as a way to soften Labour backbenchers to top-up fees. In fact, some experts argue that the universities are foolish to be so vocal in their opposition to Offa on the grounds that a compromise was needed as the price for top-up fees. "It is not going to be particularly burdensome or troublesome," said one observer. "All these universities are desperate to widen participation so I can't see that Offa will have to brandish the big stick."
But the vice-chancellors are not so sanguine. Professor Driscoll points out that either way - whether Offa is a toothless tiger or a monster with a big stick - it is a bad thing. Even if it's a toothless tiger it will waste money, he says, because it will involve universities in producing a lot of paper to show that they are conforming.
Professor Sterling says he would relax if he didn't think the Government was serious. But the evidence is that successive governments have exercised more and more control over the universities. "We are quite right to be suspicious of what is proposed," he says.
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