Cable to make selection panel an Offa it can't refuse

Business secretary overrules committee on Ebdon in a politically charged process. Simon Baker writes

February 16, 2012

Credit: Getty
Vince Cable set to announce the formal appointment of Les Ebdon as director of the Office for Fair Access

Vince Cable is expected to push through the appointment of Les Ebdon as director of the Office for Fair Access, although sector leaders warn that the post may have been irreparably damaged by the huge political row.

Mr Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, will next week formally announce that he is to override the decision of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee - which rejected Professor Ebdon, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire - barring any last-minute interventions from a higher level of government.

Last week, the BIS committee said in a report - approved by just four panel members, all of them Conservatives - that it was not convinced by Professor Ebdon's "descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities".

Mr Cable is to stand by the appointment, despite a stand-off with some Conservative ministers and vitriolic press attacks on Professor Ebdon that have been described by one senior figure as "scandalous".

Sir Christopher Snowden, the current vice-president of Universities UK, said the whole episode had been "unfortunate", leading to the politicisation of Offa and a director's role that was designed to be independent of government interference.

He said Offa was "beginning to become a more functional operational process again" after the fees furore, but "now it is thrown all up in the air again with talk of social engineering and politically favoured or unfavoured candidates".

Sir Christopher, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, said the new director might now find the job close to impossible.

"Les himself is in a difficult position because he has now been tarred by the brush of politics. That could make it quite hard for him to operate," he said.

Sir Christopher said the debacle had also reawakened the problem of coalition politics "stomping all over the higher education field".

The power struggle in the coalition over the appointment is said to revolve around Mr Cable and Michael Gove, the education secretary, with suggestions that the latter wants universities to be moved back into his department.

Times Higher Education understands that many of the media attacks on Professor Ebdon have been prompted by briefings from Mr Gove's office.

Mr Gove is said to be unhappy with BIS' choice of Professor Ebdon, despite the backing of the appointment by his Conservative colleague David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

The vice-chancellors of some highly selective universities were known to be surprised and shocked by Professor Ebdon's candidature, with suggestions that government officials at a high level were subsequently contacted about the university leaders' concerns.

However, Sir Christopher said that although some members of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities may have "strong views" over the appointment of Professor Ebdon, he did not think that most institutions would.

There was also no evidence that vice-chancellors had contacted the government about the appointment, he added.

Another vice-chancellor, who did not want to be named, added: "The appointment of Professor Ebdon has support across all the mission groups, and many feel that his treatment in the press has been quite scandalous. As director he would be a tough but fair regulator, in my view - he is more than aware of the constraints that selective universities operate under.

"The idea that he would recklessly or aggressively seek to undermine their autonomy in some partisan fashion is frankly absurd, and is recognised as such by at least some Russell Group vice-chancellors, I'm sure."

Meanwhile, Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, who predicted before Christmas that the appointment would go to the heart of the rift in the coalition, suggested that the row exposed tensions in the Tory party rather than in the coalition.

"You've got a bunch of harder-line Tories who have never liked the idea of Offa and who find any kind of attempt to do anything other than allow institutions to take who they want to be reprehensible," Mr Westwood said.

"In other words, there is an ideo-logical problem with Offa as well as whoever might do the job. Unfortunately for Les it just exacerbates it, because he has been a vocal critic of coalition politics."

Ink stains: were Conservative briefings behind the media's invective?

Vice-chancellors have privately expressed their shock at the personal tone of some of the press attacks on Les Ebdon that accompanied the political row over his nomination for the role of access chief.

Since the head of the University of Bedfordshire was scrutinised by a committee of MPs on 2 February, he has been described as a "grey-minded platitude-spouting, pro-tokenism trundler", told that he would "never understand poor people" and has even had a subject named after him - Ebdonology.

The mocking tone and constant nature of the barrage led to the chair of Million+ receiving a stream of supportive messages from universities in all parts of the sector - including some Russell Group vice-chancellors.

Many are said to have been taken by surprise by the ferocity of the media onslaught, which began with columnists in the Daily Mail but later spread to coverage in newspapers including The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph.

The coverage has led to suggestions that the attacks have been coordinated through briefings from sections of the Conservative Party, with aides close to Michael Gove, the education secretary, suggested to be the drivers. Mr Gove - who is keen to see government responsibility for higher education taken back into the education department - is said to be angry that his Conservative colleague David Willetts, the universities and science minister, gave his backing to the appointment of Professor Ebdon.

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