Les Ebdon Appointed University Tsar By Vince Cable Over Concerns Of MPs

Pa/The Huffington Post  |  By   |  Posted: 20/02/12 11:14  |  Updated: 20/02/12 11:14

Les Ebdon

Vince Cable has appointed professor Les Ebdon as the next director of fair access to higher education, overruling the wishes of the Commons committee charged with scrutinising the appointment.

The Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee had attempted to veto the Lib Dem business secretary's choice, with four of its five Tory members objecting to the appointment.

Professor Ebdon, currently vice chancellor of Bedfordshire University, will be responsible for ensuring the introduction of higher tuition fees do not deter students from low-income backgrounds from going to university. But the MPs had expressed concerns about his approach. David Cameron was thought to be unhappy about Cable's choice, but was powerless to block the appointment.

However in a letter to the committee published on Monday, Cable said his duty was "to appoint the candidate I regard as best suited to fill the post".

"We conducted a lengthy and careful search for the right candidate, twice over," he said. "I have considered your committee's report most carefully. However I have concluded that your report does not raise any new, relevant facts about professor Ebdon's suitability for the post as to cause me to revise my original position."

In the letter to the chair of the commitee, Labour MP Adrian Bailey, Cable said it was Ebdon' presentational skills that had failed him, not his qualities to do the job.

"I do take seriously the concerns the select committee has raised over professor Ebdon's presentation skills," he said.

"Professor Ebdon has accepted that he could have perhaps performed more effectively at the select committee hearing and that he did not do himself justice."

His appointment was also reportedly opposed by David Cameron and education Secretary Michael Gove, but Downing Street announced last week that it was Cable's decision to make.

On Monday morning Conservative MPs warned Cameron that the Ebdon's appointment would lead admissions in the "wrong direction" and be "harmful" to higher education.

The Fair Access to University Group (FAUG) of Tory MPs published a report suggesting his views on improving access for disadvantaged students to the best institutions would be counter-productive.

The report, calling for the remit of professor Ebdon's new role to be reviewed, is co-authored by Graham Stuart, chairman of the Tories' influential 1922 Committee and of the cross-party education committee.

At a pre-appointment hearing, professor Ebdon told the business committee he would be prepared to use tough sanctions against universities that fail to meet targets on recruiting and retaining disadvantaged students.

Monday's report says that the best way to improve access for students from poorer backgrounds is to intervene at the secondary school stage so that there is a more level playing field among applicants to university.

It recommends the publication of information on school rankings on their pupils' university destinations, raising the status of teaching with higher pay and encouraging the study of more rigorous subjects.

Tory MP Rob Wilson, who wrote the report with Stuart and fellow Conservatives Elizabeth Truss and James Clappison, said Prof Ebdon's views did not correspond with the evidence.

"It is the view of FAUG and this report that OFFA, by interfering with the admissions policy of individual universities, is heading in the wrong direction," he said.

"Indeed, we believe that in the future OFFA's influence on our world class institutions could be harmful.

"The evidence in our report and other published and compelling reports confirms that the problem recruiting disadvantaged students to top universities does not lie with university admissions policy.

"Any attempt to enforce social rather than academic admissions criteria upon universities is not only a distraction but counter-productive to the overall well-being of the sector.

"It is our strong recommendation that the powers and focus of OFFA are urgently reviewed."

Clappison said Prof Ebdon's appointment would have "a very negative effect" on the quality of university education.

"I would like to see an urgent review of OFFA's powers and focus to ensure it supports our world class universities and doesn't undermine them," he said.

Brady said research showed that previous educational achievements were a crucial guide to success at degree level.

"Therefore we know that primary way to improve access for those from low income families is to raise their academic attainment at school, not play social engineering at university entrance," he said.

"Artificial quotas for our most selective and successful universities are wrong in principle, break pledges made by ministers on university autonomy and do no favours to students who will be unable to cope.

"We want to address the real problems so as to improve poorer children's real life chances. Doing anything else lets down the very children we are all supposed to help."

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