Leader - Opening up: a can of worms

Les Ebdon's appointment and arguments about open courseware show that access remains a political hot potato

February 23, 2012

So Les Ebdon will go to the ball after all, despite the efforts of the ugly sisters in the Tory press and on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.

The decision to appoint the University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor as director of the Office for Fair Access must be the right one: what would it have said to students if he had been blackballed for threatening to get tough with universities? But the tortuous way in which it was reached has once again exposed higher education as a central and potentially coalition-wrecking tension within government.

First the candidature of David Allen, registrar at the University of Exeter, for the Offa post was sidelined, ostensibly because the government wanted a wider field of applicants, but more plausibly because of Exeter's poor past performance on access. Then Professor Ebdon, with his Million+ credentials, was judged to be too partisan for the job.

Commentators on the Right were quick to fire off inevitable jibes about "Mickey Mouse" degrees, but the flak soon moved beyond snobbery into hysteria - whipped up, it is suggested, by the Conservative education secretary Michael Gove.

Meanwhile, others simply laughed at the idea of Professor Ebdon using the "nuclear option" of fining universities that fail on access or barring them from charging higher fees. In a letter to Times Higher Education this week, David Palfreyman and Dennis Farrington of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies warn the Bedfordshire vice-chancellor that he will be "sorely disappointed" to find that, "like a Blair/Campbell identification of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Offa has no such arsenal".

In the end, Vince Cable got his man, but the process was a shambles, with good people - which Mr Allen and Professor Ebdon surely are - subjected to horrendous political attacks. That hardly bodes well for the future of higher education decision-making.

Questions of access and the protectionist policies of a self-interested elite are also raised in our cover story on the open courseware movement. Now a decade old, and with many universities - particularly in the US - making teaching material freely available online, enterprising organisations are pulling resources together to create programmes that are available to all. However, universities have largely refused to award credits to those who complete them. Their fears are understandable - other industries have seen the rug pulled from under them when material produced at a cost is given away online. But the stance is harder for universities to justify, calling into question their reason for being - to advance and share knowledge for the public good.

Now organisations such as not-for-profit Saylor.org are changing the game again, offering an "electronic portfolio" to accompany their free online courses that promises to provide employers with more detail about students than traditional degree awards.

There is no doubt that universities face a tough balancing act as they seek to protect their interests while opening up to as wide an audience as possible. Some, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has launched the MITx programme, are walking the high wire with aplomb. Others will need to consider their next steps carefully.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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