Education & Family

MPs to reveal university access chief decision

Les Ebdon
Image caption Les Ebdon is the head of the Million+ group, representing many new universities

The disputed appointment of the next head of the university fair access watchdog will be resolved on Wednesday, when MPs reveal whether they have accepted the nomination of Les Ebdon.

Select committee MPs met on Monday to vote on Prof Ebdon as the director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa).

Prof Ebdon had been put forward by ministers as their preferred candidate.

But there were reports of "mediation" to settle a stand-off as some MPs sought to block his appointment.

The outcome of the vote and a report from MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee will be published at noon on Wednesday.

Professor Ebdon is the vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the Million+ group of new universities.

He has been an outspoken defender of these universities, and a supporter of the cause of widening participation in higher education.

Prof Ebdon had told MPs at a pre-appointment hearing last week, that if he became the director of fair access he would be prepared to use financial sanctions against universities which failed to reach access targets.

If Prof Ebdon is rejected by the committee, it would disappoint supporters of new universities within the higher education sector, with a university source saying that it would show that commitment to the "social mobility agenda is very shallow".

It would also create a dilemma for the ministerial team, Vince Cable and David Willetts, who put Prof Ebdon forward as their preferred choice.

'Social engineering'

It is believed that his appointment is being disputed by some Conservative MPs on the committee.

And if a majority of MPs on the committee have voted against Prof Ebdon, ministers would have to decide whether to try to press ahead with the appointment against their opposition.

Support for Prof Ebdon's appointment has been voiced on Twitter, under the heading #OffaLesthejob.

Offa is responsible for overseeing the access agreements which universities in England have to sign if they want to charge more than £6,000 a year in tuition fees.

As part of the deal for charging higher fees, universities have to set out how they will encourage applications from students from poorer backgrounds - such as offering bursaries and running outreach projects.

This is a sensitive balancing act between protecting access for the disadvantaged while risking accusations of "social engineering" by manipulating the admissions process.

The new director of Offa was expected to replace the current head, Sir Martin Harris, who is stepping down later this year.

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