Weapon of Mass Education

Some v-cs took fright when Les Ebdon stated his readiness to use the 'nuclear option' to enforce access agreements as head of Offa. What does that say about the state of the sector? asks Martin McQuillan

March 1, 2012




Universities used to do affairs with class. There was "the de Man affair", in which juvenile, war-time journalism was used to discredit the achievements of the Sterling professor of humanities at Yale University; the sequel, "the Heidegger affair", in which the humanities belatedly remembered that the philosopher had been a member of the Nazi party in order to bring his contemporary readers into disrepute; and of course, the many unforgettable "affairs de Derrida", in which attempts were made to deny him promotion, an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge and even the ability to exert copyright over his own work.

Remember the Sokal affair, in which a scientist slipped nonsense through the peer-review system of cultural theory? But those were the days when academics had the time and energy to be outraged by the content of someone else's seminar. The recent Les Ebdon affair, by contrast, is a sad reflection of the new academia in the age of the corporate university and coalition politics.

In this instance, the proposal to appoint someone to direct the Office for Fair Access who looked vaguely like he might make good on the endemic but mostly empty rhetoric written into every UK university's strategic plan caused apoplexy across the sector. Everyone from Russell Group vice-chancellors to Daily Telegraph leader writers and the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, was horrified.

If by a man's enemies shall ye know him, Ebdon looks like he is off to a good start.

Authorities on higher education, such as The Telegraph's Charles Moore and the Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips, were moved to pen vicious personal attacks on Ebdon and his "slum" university. The Mail excelled itself, painting him as a "champion of Mickey Mouse degrees", a Labour adviser and a militant critic of government higher education policy. One of the examples the newspaper gave of a substandard degree at Ebdon's institution, the University of Bedfordshire, was a postgraduate qualification in journalism. Media studies, predictably, took a pounding even though the cultural industries make up nearly 10 per cent of the UK economy. (I have always found it curious that those in the media do not take themselves seriously enough to think of the media itself as an object of academic study. I can only put it down to some form of transferential self-loathing - for a decade I taught what some would call "media studies" in the Russell Group.) The Conservative Fair Access to University Group (read "Swift Boat Veterans Against Les Ebdon") wrote a report, while David Cameron said he was powerless to stop the appointment. Throughout it all, Ebdon kept a dignified silence and refused to do the Civil Service thing of withdrawing his application.

The consensus was that universities could not be expected to do anything about access because it was all the fault of failing state secondary schools. I expected little more from Conservative backbenchers and The Telegraph, but quite why the universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Ulster and Liverpool should have taken this view is something of a mystery to me. I have never met an academic in any of these institutions who was not profoundly committed to the idea of access. For that matter, I have never met an Oxbridge academic who wasn't either: so, why the furore around Ebdon?

During his pre-appointment hearing with the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Ebdon was impolitic enough to suggest that he was prepared to use "the nuclear option" against universities that failed to abide by their access agreements. This was in no way related to the reported previous threat by his sponsor, Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable, to use his own nuclear option to bring down the coalition. It was rather a promise actually to use the powers of Offa in the event of a university not complying with the access agreement its own managers had written. No doubt Ebdon thought this sounded like the sort of tough talking the committee wanted to hear; instead it was used to cast him as an academic rogue state intent on acquiring weapons of mass education.

On the one hand, all that he was suggesting was that he would be prepared to use the limited powers of his office to enforce the government's own policy. The threat of taking money from universities is just about the only thing that exercises vice-chancellors. On the other hand, we will recall from the debacle of the tuition-fees policy that, in fact, Offa - with its three members of staff - is in essence a toothless creature. When it came to it, the quango approved every single access agreement for a university that wished to raise tuition fees to £9,000 a year regardless of mission group. The tuition-fees policy was fatally flawed because the government believed Offa capable of acting as an enforcer and consumer champion in the fees market. In truth, it had neither the capacity nor the legal powers to do so, and to give it such powers would have contravened international treaties on the autonomy of universities. With Sir Martin Harris taking retirement having suffered ill health, the first search to find a new director produced one candidate, who withdrew from the process: no one, in a sector full of executives looking for a quango position, would touch this poisoned chalice with a bargepole. The second search produced the soon-to-retire vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire. Six months ago, Offa was an emasculated basket case. Today, according to the Tory press, it threatens to end civilisation as we know it.

I know Ebdon. He is one of the talking heads in my recent documentary on tuition fees, I melt the glass with my forehead.

The truth about him (award-winning chemist, graduate of Imperial College London, vice-chancellor) is that he is a mild-mannered technocrat with the best interests of the sector at heart, and he is quite capable of building consensus across a divergence of opinions. I recall that his interview for the documentary was by far the most "on message" of all the shoots that we did. I spent an hour trying to goad him into saying something interesting on camera; he spent the hour batting my questions away deftly, as only a vice-chancellor with years of media training could (that's what happens when you take the media seriously as an object of study). The edit was extremely vexing. To describe Ebdon as a Labour lackey and a fierce critic of government policy is farcical (he spoke at a fringe event at last year's Tory party conference). His relative radicalism can be measured by the fact that he has been a long-standing member of the editorial board of Times Higher Education. We are all in trouble if the Conservative Party views THE as a hotbed of radicalism. The personal attacks on Ebdon and his university have been shameful and a sign that someone, somewhere, feels threatened.

I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that universities are not responsible for the ills of society or the employability of their graduates. I am sure Ebdon feels the same. I wish him luck in the role; he is going to need it. If this affair proves anything it is that some vice-chancellors in the UK have truly lost the run of themselves. When you find yourself lined up alongside Melanie Phillips, her editor Paul Dacre and the fringes of the Tory parliamentary party against the majority of your own staff, it is time for the reflective professional practitioner to pause for thought. The opposition to Ebdon is based partly on the misplaced fear of Offa fining institutions; I'll lay a bet now that not one university will receive an invoice from him in his new role, or at least not the ones you would imagine.

It is absolutely true that the key to access lies in lack of opportunity in our schools (perhaps we should bring back the education maintenance allowance?) and, crucially, in early years development. However, as opportunity recedes in an age of austerity, it is time to treat this issue seriously and critically. If Ebdon's tenure at Offa does one thing, perhaps it will be to place access to higher education at the centre of the national consciousness. In a subterranean way worries about access have, for decades, blighted the fate of secondary education in England, which has been repeatedly divided and constantly restructured, as one flawed policy to "raise standards" and "improve social mobility" followed another.

It has got to the point where headteachers are removed from their posts when they do not wish their school to transfer to academy status and where 11-year-olds enter into a lottery to attend the school on their doorstep. Why does Scotland have a far superior record to England on participation, access, retention and the percentage of the population educated to graduate level? Look at its secondary school policy and learn a lesson. I'll be sending "Red Les" a reading list.

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