Aaron Porter gives his verdict on the good (heading for a first) and the bad (heading for a fail) this week.
Heading for a first: Office for Fair Access (Offa)
It was Mission Impossible. For what would normally take months, but had to be just weeks because of the Government’s rushed higher education funding policy, the Office for Fair Access miraculously managed to sign off the full complement of access agreements this week, for institutions wishing to charge more than £6,000 a year from September 2012, on time and on schedule.
Rather than simply getting the agreements signed off on time and constrained by their existing powers, Offa truly deserves recognition for seeking out a significantly increased outlay from institutions to support the poorest students, but for doing so in the eye of a political storm. Total access agreement funding will be £602m by 2015-16, the first year with three cohorts of the new fee regime students, compared with £407m in 2011-12.
But almost as soon as the government had announced that the upper cap would be set at £9,000 back in November, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable took to the airwaves promising it would only be “in exceptional circumstances”. Nick Clegg even went to Cambridge University to “promise” – a word he should learn to use carefully – that universities would be prevented from charging the maximum unless “they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds who presently aren’t going”.
Sadly, this was another Clegg promise which showed a complete lack of understanding for the context in which he was operating, this time misunderstanding the role and remit of the office – which is an access regulator, not a price regulator. You’d have thought that the clue was in the title, but then again the deputy prime minister doesn’t have the best track record of twigging things that seem blindingly obvious to everyone else.
However, for as well as Offa has done in the circumstances, its role and remit won’t suffice in the new fees regime. The government needs to stick to what it set out in the white paper and afford new powers to the regulator, and when the new Offa director is appointed later this year, his or her first task will be to give the organisation some teeth and start to measure institutions on their impact and results, not on self-imposed targets.
Heading for a fail: the Treasury
If Offa had a good week, then, sadly, the Treasury had a bad one. For as the ink dried on the access agreements, the dim and distant pipe dream that the average fee would be £7,500 (as Treasury figures assume) were banished once and for all. The Offa analysis shows the average fee is £8,393, which comes down to £8,161 once fee waivers are taken into account. That makes a whopping £616 off per student. It might not sound much, but rough estimates suggest this could lead to a budget black hole of as much as £600m.
This is a big headache for the Treasury, given it has already subjected the higher education budget to the biggest cut in its history over the next four years. With public teaching funds for the arts, humanities and social sciences already gone, it isn’t obvious what the Treasury will do next.
David Willetts has rightly stated his intention to see student numbers grow, and it is surely unthinkable to look at the remaining teaching budget largely concentrated on Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), or the widening participation premium which would surely be politically unpalatable to touch.
It almost borders on a conspiracy theory, but perhaps David Willetts knew all along that the average fee would be higher than £7,500, and this far down the road would now be impossible for the Treasury to cut further. Time will tell.