Giving Offa director target-setting powers ‘would not work’, Les Ebdon warns

Fair access tsar warns ‘top-down meddling’ would be a ‘costly, bureaucratic exercise’

December 3, 2015

Les Ebdon, the director of fair access to higher education, has come out against the proposal to give him the power to set admissions targets for universities.

Such a system “would not work”, could amount to “top-down meddling” and would be a “costly, bureaucratic exercise”, Professor Ebdon said.

Ministers were warned last month that they faced a backlash from highly selective universities and MPs if they implemented the higher education Green Paper’s suggestion that the director could be given the power to set targets for institutions that fail to make swift enough progress on widening participation, or where outcomes for disadvantaged groups are below expectations.

Professor Ebdon said that, after “careful consideration”, he was “strongly opposed” to the proposal.

“Universities and colleges are best placed to set their own access agreement targets as they do at present,” Professor Ebdon said. “The current system works well. It allows me as the independent, single-focus access regulator to tread a careful line of legitimate challenge while avoiding top-down meddling.

“And it protects institutional autonomy, allowing institutions to use their knowledge of their local and institutional context to propose targets that address areas where their particular institution needs to make the most progress.

“External, centrally imposed target setting would not work. It would be a costly, bureaucratic exercise.”

Professor Ebdon’s current powers permit him to negotiate with universities and colleges over the targets they set themselves, and he highlighted that the latest round of talks had secured improved targets at 94 institutions.

“These negotiations can be tough, but I’ve always sought to work collaboratively with universities and colleges on their targets – understanding their particular context and any challenges they face,” Professor Ebdon continued. “It would be much harder to take them to task for a target calculated from afar with which they’d had no involvement.

“Many might think my position counterintuitive. Why wouldn’t I want more powers? But the reality is that what is proposed represents a reduction in power – less opportunity to negotiate, less opportunity to understand individual context, less opportunity to influence progress.”

Offa’s response to the Green Paper, published on 3 December, calls for Professor Ebdon to be given the power to promote and monitor access to postgraduate taught courses, in addition to his current responsibilities around undergraduate education.

This follows the announcement of government-backed loans for postgraduate study and the growing importance of having a master’s degree for many careers.

The response also says that, although Offa will become part of the planned Office for Students, the directorship should remain an independent post appointed directly by the government, with a single focus on access.

The Sutton Trust’s response to the Green Paper, published on 3 December, agrees that the director should remain independent with a single focus on access, and also opposes the proposal for judgements made as part of the teaching excellence framework to be linked to tuition fee increases.

“Fees are too high already,” the charity’s response says.

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