In a further blow to equal university access, Conservative MPs have voted to reject Professor Les Ebdon as director of the Office of Fair Access. Ebdon, a strong advocate of new universities and a vociferous critic of the raised tuition fees scheme, was the choice of Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable and was also supported by Universities Minister David Willetts.
But the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee rejected Ebdon, claiming doubts over his identification of the root causes of obstacles to fair university access. But in reality, critics claim the decision is much more likely to be the result of Ebdon’s threat to toughen up sanctions against institutions that didn’t accept a high enough percentage of disadvantaged students. The fact that some private schools and elite universities also campaigned against Ebdon’s appointment further supports the view that his election was blocked because he was likely to demand stringent measures to even up unfair university admissions figures, which currently favour advantaged and private school pupils enormously.
The committee’s rejection of Ebdon, who has worked in higher education for 44 years and is highly respected as chair of the Million+ university think tank, has caused outrage amongst access to education campaigners. They claim this is simply one more piece of evidence of the government’s lack of commitment to equality in higher education, with fears that the raising of tuition fees to £9000 will create an antiquated feudal system where only the rich are able to afford university degrees.
David Ward, the only Liberal Democrat MP to sit on the committee, told the Guardian newspaper he had called for an inquiry into whether there had been “inappropriate behaviour” in Ebdon’s rejection, claiming that the committee had not been objective in its decision. Indeed, when Ebdon’s qualifications and many positions of responsibility are taken into account, it beggars belief that a group of MPs can have the audacity to deny him the post on the basis of ideological disagreements about an area in which he is clearly an expert. He is Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, Chair of Million+, a board member of the University and Colleges Employers’ Association and the Universities UK Board, Chair of the Universities UK Students, Quality and Participation Policy Network and serves on the Further Education and Skills Ministerial Advisory Panel. He is a member of the Parliamentary University Group Council, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and serves on the editorial board of the Times Higher Educational Supplement. To suggest that his opinions on the barriers preventing disadvantaged students from reaching university might simply be ‘wrong’ is an astonishing claim.
It is a true measure of how far the government is willing to go to in its stubborn refusal to acknowledge valid concerns about the implementation of its new higher education funding policy. Angry protesters have claimed that this development will ensure that OFFA, previously accused of being a ‘toothless’ regulator, will remain a lapdog, rather than a watchdog. Charged with ensuring that universities meet high targets for recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, OFFA supposedly has the power to deny any higher education institution the right to charge more than £6000 tuition fees if they do not comply. But since the introduction of the new raised fees, not one university has been forced to cut its prices by the watchdog. Ebdon’s appointment might have made improving access a true priority for some of our most elite, and elitist universities. The government’s decision to block his appointment now makes that extremely unlikely.