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Office for Fair Access and the law

June 24, 2011

Since interpreting the coming HE white paper depends on understanding the fates of the quangos currently involved in monitoring, funding and regulating the sector, I provide a link here to an article on the legal situation of Offa (the Office for Fair Access) and the recent guidance letter issued by BIS.  Dennis Farrington and David Palfreyman, authors of The Law of Higher Education(OUP, 2006), interpret the current legislation to ‘firmly deny Government any authority or ability at all to interfere in university admissions’ but take the recent letter to cross a line that limits Offa monitoring to how institutions increase applications from under-represented groups.

“If the Government really deems it necessary now to intervene to any such extent (or, in fact, to any extent at all) in the detailed admissions policies and processes of, and also the exact entry criteria set by, universities, institution by institution, rather than having the previous and entirely legal focus, via its arms-length quango-like agency in the form of OFFA, solely on applications, then, clearly, it will need, in its impending White Paper on higher education, to consult over awarding itself appropriate powers under new legislation – since at present the Government simply has no authority in Law to seek to become involved, via the work of OFFA, in the way seemingly implied in the February 2011 letter of ‘guidance’.”

The two authors suggest that any legislation of this ilk would breach one of the key principles of university autonomy and amount to the ‘virtual nationalisation’ of the university.  It is hard to share the conclusion that this is the government’s aim, but it may go some way to indicating the kind of problems the government is facing in reconfiguring the regulatory terrain of HE.  It is perhaps from this perspective that the ideas around hybrid recruitment caps should be interpreted – using the money to influence institutional decisions rather than interfering directly in application procedures.




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