Les Ebdon: ‘nuclear option’ fears kept universities in line

England’s outgoing director of fair access mulls progress on participation and gives advice to new regulator

January 3, 2018
Les Ebdon

As he prepares to step down as England’s fair access tsar, Les Ebdon acknowledges that his tenure has been shaped, in some ways, by the controversy that surrounded his appointment.

Professor Ebdon was branded a “social engineer” by the right-leaning press when he was appointed to lead the Office for Fair Access in 2012, amid concern about his support of the use of contextual admissions, and he provoked anger among MPs at a pre-appointment hearing when he said that he would not be afraid to use the “nuclear option” of suspending a university’s ability to charge higher fees if it failed to recruit enough students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some saw his comments as a threat to excellence in universities, and Professor Ebdon, who was then vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, was left without the endorsement of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.

However, despite the outrage of some Conservative MPs, including education secretary Michael Gove, David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, was powerless to block the choice made by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary.

Nearly six years on, and as Professor Ebdon prepares to leave his post of director of fair access to higher education, he recognises that the commotion surrounding his installation gave him a “significant advantage” when he did take office.

“The press had painted me as some kind of ogre and that always helps a regulator,” he told Times Higher Education.

During his tenure, Professor Ebdon’s key lever of influence over universities has been the negotiation and approval (or rejection) of the access agreements that detail how universities plan to widen participation and determine whether institutions will be allowed to charge the maximum fee level, currently £9,250.

So, how close did Professor Ebdon come to pushing the nuclear button during his tenure? “Within hours…most years there would be something going on,” he said. “I have had to turn up at various universities or have lengthy telephone conversations with vice-chancellors to say ‘we are publishing a list in a week’s time and your institution is not going to be on it because your proposal is unacceptable’.”

Negotiations have been particularly difficult in the past year, Professor Ebdon said, probably because universities are becoming “complacent” on access and potentially trying their luck to see whether he has gone “soft” in his “old age”.

In a light-hearted moment, Professor Ebdon admitted that the fact he did not ultimately get to use the much-vaunted “nuclear option” was something of a source of disappointment. “I would have loved to have read the Daily Mail after that,” he joked.

Even without using this powerful sanction, there is little doubt that admissions to English universities have changed substantially during Professor Ebdon’s tenure. Universities are now spending more than £800 million of their fee income on activities to boost the number of students they admit from disadvantaged backgrounds. And there is some evidence that this funding is making a difference.

Over the past decade, there has been a 73 per cent increase in the number of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods starting university. At the institutions that require the highest grades for entry, there has been a 57 per cent increase in such students in the same time frame.

“It certainly exceeded my expectations,” Professor Ebdon said.

But the headline statistics mask a sobering reality. “Of course, all it means is instead of being 3.7 times more likely to be in higher education if you come from the most advantaged part of the population, you are now only 2.3 times more likely…We have still got a long way to go, particularly in the high-tariff institutions,” Professor Ebdon said.

Weighing on his mind is the “massive decline” in part-time and mature students, whose numbers have dropped by about 60 per cent each in recent years. Higher fees for students in England are one of the reasons behind this trend, he said, pointing to other potential reasons including the fact that the mature student pool may have been “fished out” (by the fact that more people are going to university at a younger age), and the poor economic climate potentially dissuading part-time learners.

However, overall, Professor Ebdon believes that the access agreements, seen by many university heads initially as the “cost of doing business”, represent “excellent value for money” given the returns on widening participation that they have made.

“It is a national success story,” he said, adding that it has left him “eager for more”.

Offa is being merged with the Higher Education Funding Council for England to form the Office for Students and one of Professor Ebdon’s big hopes for the new organisation is that it will allow for greater coherence of the various activities on access in higher education.

“When the higher fees first came in, it made sense to have a single-focus regulator just looking at access,” he said. Now is the time for a greater coherence, in part to reduce the level of bureaucracy for university management in dealing with different entities, he argued. This is something that Professor Ebdon himself said that he resented during his time at Bedfordshire.

It also enables the focus to shift to students, Professor Ebdon argued.

Hefce could be called the “office for institutions”, he said. “It looked after institutions and it has had a very successful track record of making sure no universities go to the wall,” he added.

It was Professor Ebdon’s job to challenge institutions, even when they told him that his requirements could drive them into bankruptcy. In such cases, he told universities: “That is not my concern, my concern is for students.”

“In some senses, we have paved the way for the OfS with our focus on students,” he added. “You now have a single coherent body that puts students’ social mobility [and] widening access at the very heart of what it does, but at the same time maintains a very powerful person in terms of the director of fair access and participation.”

Chris Millward, who is currently a director of policy at Hefce, was named as the director of fair access and participation at the OfS earlier this year. In his new post, Mr Millward will have new tools to hold universities to account on access that have not been available to Professor Ebdon.

Among these will be the ability to audit universities – a powerful tool that could be used to challenge the assumptions behind some institutions’ access policies, he said.

This could be useful in holding to account institutions that spend most of their access agreement money offering big bursaries to lure potential students – a tactic of some “very highly prestigious universities”, he said.

These institutions tell him that their research shows that it is an effective policy but, in reality, the findings merely show that students like to receive the money, Professor Ebdon claimed.

“That is not the question that should be being asked,” he said, adding that universities should instead be finding out whether the money influenced students’ decision about whether to attend higher education or not.

“The answer is [that bursaries did] not [make a difference]…We now know that those kinds of bursaries for students are not effective. They don’t influence the decision to go to university or which university to go to,” he said.

For some time now, Professor Ebdon has been advocating for “not more spend but smarter spend” on access. This involves universities upping their game in terms of evaluating how effective their work on widening participation actually is.

As Offa is disbanded and he prepares to hand the baton to the OfS early next year, it is clear that this job will fall to Mr Millward. His advice? “Be tough.”

“You will be getting all kinds of excuses, the top brass will be rolled out,” he said. “It is absolutely essential that there is somebody where the buck stops, and that that person is prepared to take a tough line and say ‘that is not good enough’.”

Offering some final thoughts, Professor Ebdon will not be drawn on whether he could have been tougher.

“I can look back and say that there are thousands of students who have been through higher education who wouldn’t have been through higher education but for access agreements,” he said. “But I can also look back and say that there are thousands who could have benefited and haven’t because we could have made faster progress.”

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

From chemistry PhD to going nuclear on admissions

  • A chemist by training, Les Ebdon obtained a PhD from Imperial College London in 1971
  • He lectured at Makerere University, in Uganda, (1971-73) before spending the rest of the decade at Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University)
  • He joined Plymouth University as a lecturer in analytical chemistry in 1980, eventually rising to become deputy vice-chancellor (academic development)
  • He was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Luton in 2003 and became vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire on its creation in 2006
  • He was appointed director of fair access to higher education in February 2012.

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Print headline: ‘The press painted me as an ogre and that always helps a regulator’

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