Vince Cable's decision to appoint Les Ebdon as the chair of the Office for Fair Acess (OFFA) has come under fire from Tory MPs in the Commons, after the business secretary over-ruled a Commons committee which said the professor wasn't suitable for the post.
Professor Ebdon, currently the head of Bedfordshire University, was snubbed by MPs because they claimed he didn't understand the root causes of obstacles to accessing universities.
Ebdon has made it clear that universities should be rewarded on a payment-by-results scheme, with funding taken away if the top-flight institutions fail to reach targets on admitting pupils from poorer backgrounds. Tory MPs feel that this is interfering too much in the admissions policies of universities.
Conservative MP for Hertsmere James Clappison was granted an urgent question by the Speaker on the row, which Labour believes to be indicative of a "turf war" taking place between Lib Dems and Tories in the coalition.
Clappison said that while professor Ebdon was "an academic of great distinction", he pointed out that this was only the second time a minister had ignored the advice of a Commons committe over an appointment, and suggested this was
"deeply unsatisfactory" for him to have done so.
He asked: "How can the secretary of state say he believes in the principles of autonomy, when his appointee has threatened universities with the nuclear option of withdrawing funding if they do not adhere to centrally imposed targets?"
Cable said if the committee had been unanimous the government may have responded differently, but pointed out the committee had divided on party lines, with four of the five Tories on the committee opposing professor Ebdon's appointment.
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said Labour had no objection to the appointment of Les Ebdon, but suggested the row reflected the "turf war" underway within the coalition, saying it was "deeply unhelpful" that professor Ebdon's appointment had been reportedly opposed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Cable replied that it was a "government appointment supported by all my colleagues," and insisted there had been a very fair recruitment process. He added that "slights" had been cast on professor Ebdon's university, which Cable insisted had very high graduate employment rates and world class research.
Chair of the business, innovation and skills committee Adrian Bailey wanted know if Ebdon's appointment had been part of a back-room deal on David Cameron's desire to remove the penalty on early repayments of tuition fees, something which will help children with wealthier parents.
Lib Dem MP Richard Fuller warned of a culture of "public opprobrium" developing towards people who had stepped forward to serve their country. He suggested this included the backlash surrounding the RBS boss, Stephen Hester.
This was echoed by Kevin Baron, a Labour MP who suggested political rows surrounding public appointments could put people off standing for public office.
A running theme through the session was the absence of Universities Minister David Willetts, who Vince Cable said was in Antarctica. What the minister is doing there has not been revealed, but Cable was adamant that Willetts supported the decision to appoint Professor Ebdon.
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