Tory attempts to block universities tsar ‘disgraceful’, say critics

The man in line to become become the new university access watchdog has been treated “disgracefully” by Tory MPs, colleagues said yesterday.

Professor Les Ebdon was put forward by ministers – including the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, and the Universities minister, David Willetts – as their preferred candidate to lead the Office for Fair Access.

But MPs on the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee voted to block his appointment, claiming he was not up to the job. Two Labour MPs backed Mr Ebdon but four Tory MPs opposed him, and called for the recruitment process to begin again.

Dr Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, said: “I have known Les Ebdon for many years. He is professional. He is a man of sound judgement and he understands the issues [of widening participation] well.”

The furore over Professor Ebdon’s selection shows no signs of abating. After the MPs voted, Mr Cable said he still backed the professor and would respond to the committee “shortly”. Nearly a week later, Professor Ebdon’s appointment has still not been confirmed. However, a major obstacle appears to have been cleared, with Downing Street acknowledging that the Prime Minister has no powers to intervene.

Mr Cable is expected to approve the appointment next week when Parliament returns from its half-term recess.

Professor Ebdon has said that, if confirmed in the role, he will not shirk from pressing the “nuclear button” against universities which do not take action to admit more disadvantaged students.

He would have powers to slash the fees of elite universities to £6,000 a year if they fail to meet targets to take on more students from poor families. He would also seek a wider range of powers to penalise universities instead of relying on just slashing fees and fines.

Most academics are agreed that Offa will have a bigger role once fees of up to £9,000 a year are introduced in September. One vice-chancellor said Offa’s record had been a “shambles”. Another added: “Offa is going to become more important as there is obviously a major risk to participation from traditionally under-represented groups in higher education. It would be daft if we did not conclude that was the case.”

The Tory MPs on the committee said they opposed Professor Ebdon’s appointment because of what they perceived as his lack of business skills and inability to present the case for Offa because of his former opposition to the fees regime. He favours a graduate tax.

It is also believed that some of the Russell Group of elite universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, lobbied against his appointment.

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