Professor Ebdon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of Million+, is expected to be formally confirmed in the post next week, enraging Tory MPs opposed to his candidature.
Last week, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee rejected Professor Ebdon’s appointment in a report voted through by four Conservative MPs who said they were concerned about his views on fair access.
But Mr Cable immediately issued a statement saying he still believed Professor Ebdon was the “right candidate for the role”, sparking a political stand-off with Parliament and within the government.
It has now emerged that Mr Cable will press forward and appoint Professor Ebdon, whose candidature was also approved by David Willetts, the Tory universities and science minister, and backed by a panel including Alan Milburn, a former Labour minister who is advising the coalition on social mobility.
According to newspaper reports, David Cameron’s spokesman said the prime minister had no powers to stop Mr Cable, who under the current rules for public appointments is able to ignore the select committee’s recommendation.
The move is likely to inflame tensions in the coalition and specifically anger Michael Gove, the education secretary, who is said to be opposed to Professor Ebdon’s appointment. Professor Ebdon would take over from the current director, Sir Martin Harris, later in the year.