The vice-chancellors of some highly selective universities are said to be shocked and surprised after one of the most vocal champions of post-1992 institutions was chosen by the government as its preferred candidate to be the new director of fair access.
Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group and head of the University of Bedfordshire, is on course to succeed Sir Martin Harris in the role later this year after being chosen by ministers from a shortlist of three candidates.
But his selection - which is subject to approval by a cross-party committee of MPs - has sparked astonishment in some quarters as the government had previously extended its search in an apparent bid to find a suitable candidate from outside the sector.
In December, after the first round of interviews, ministers had been left with only one name - David Allen, registrar and deputy chief executive of the University of Exeter - so they extended the process in a bid to widen the pool.
Mr Allen is understood to have withdrawn his candidature before Christmas.
The second round of interviews then produced three options: Professor Ebdon, a candidate from the schools sector and another also believed to be from outside higher education. It is understood that both Vince Cable, the business secretary, and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, preferred Professor Ebdon. However, one senior sector source said there was amazement that ministers had plumped for a higher education candidate given the previous push by some Liberal Democrats to appoint someone with a schools background.
He also pointed out that more selective institutions would be concerned about Professor Ebdon's approach to the role, given his views on widening participation.
However, Wes Streeting, chief executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation and former president of the National Union of Students, said Professor Ebdon had the "moral authority" for the role, and his appointment would constitute a wake-up call for institutions that were failing on access.
"One of my concerns about the machinations...about this post is that university leaders seem to believe that they can have almost a veto on who gets these sorts of jobs," he said. "Les Ebdon may not be the universally accepted Establishment candidate, but I think that makes him better equipped."
Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, said Professor Ebdon would understand the "soft power" the Office for Fair Access had, adding: "Ministers deserve some credit for preferring a candidate who has been quite vocal about disagreeing with some of their reforms."