Ebdon confirmed as university access chief

Business Secretary Vince Cable said Professor Ebdon was the right man for the job

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Les Ebdon has been formally announced as head of the university fair access body, despite the opposition of MPs on the committee examining his selection.

Business Secretary Vince Cable rejected attempts to block Prof Ebdon as the head of the Office for Fair Access.

Prof Ebdon had told MPs he would impose financial penalties on universities which failed to meet access targets.

Mr Cable said Prof Ebdon had the qualities to "deal even-handedly with all parts of the sector".

Prof Ebdon, vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, has been the outspoken head of the Million+ group, representing new universities.

Political storm

But he became the focus for a political storm when he was named as ministers' preferred candidate as the next director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa).

Start Quote

I am passionate about access to higher education and strongly believe that no one should be put off from going to university because of their family background or income”

End Quote Prof Les Ebdon Appointed as director of Offa

Universities wanting to charge higher tuition fees have to satisfy this watchdog that they are protecting access for poorer or under-represented groups.

MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee voted against his appointment, saying they "were not convinced by Prof Ebdon's descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities".

A Labour MP on the committee said that the candidate had been the victim of a "political ambush", with Conservatives MP on the committee voting against Prof Ebdon.

But Mr Cable stood by his candidate and has pressed ahead with his appointment.

Facing questions in the House of Commons, Mr Cable denied Labour MPs' suggestions that the appointment was only approved by the government as part of a political "back-room trade off".

The business secretary also faced hostile questions from some Conservative MPs who challenged the role of Offa and the appointment of Prof Ebdon.

Universities Minister David Willetts has also endorsed the choice of Prof Ebdon and the strengthened role for Offa.

A statement from the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee said that it would "continue to monitor" the performance of Prof Ebdon when he was in post as the head of Offa.

Accepting the appointment, Prof Ebdon said: "I am passionate about access to higher education and strongly believe that no one should be put off from going to university because of their family background or income."

Michael Driscoll, executive member of Million+, said: "Les Ebdon is well-respected by students and all universities for his commitment to widening participation and he will ensure that social mobility is centre stage in the new fees and funding regime."

The appointment was also endorsed by Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, as evidence that "mere lip service from universities about fair access is no longer enough".

'Interference'

But a group of Conservative MPs has set out its own proposals for fair access to university.

A report from the Fair Access to University Group (FAUG) says that the "interference" of Offa in admissions policy was the wrong approach.

Manipulating admission rules for social purposes would be "not only a distraction but counter-productive", says the report.

Instead the MPs argue for a levelling-up approach to fairness, by giving state school pupils more of a "level playing field" with independent schools.

It identifies practical barriers such as a poor choice of A-level subjects, which could hold back talented youngsters from getting places in the most competitive universities.

The report calls for secondary schools to publish information about the university places gained by former pupils.

At a recent education select committee hearing, Education Secretary Michael Gove said he wanted such "destination measures" to be included in school performance data.

The group also wants universities to publish information about the subjects taken by successful applicants.

International studies have repeatedly identified the pivotal importance of the quality of teachers - and this FAUG report also calls for ways for teaching to attract and reward high achievers.

"This report makes a number of important recommendations that we in FAUG believe will increase fairness for talented ambitious young people who may have not the good fortune of an affluent start in life," says Graham Stuart, who is also the chair of the education select committee.

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