Les Ebdon: Offa reappointment 'a clear vote of confidence'

Former University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor to continue in widening participation post

July 1, 2015

Les Ebdon has described his reappointment as director of fair access to higher education as a “clear vote of confidence” from the government.

The extension of Professor Ebdon’s term was announced by Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, in a speech on 1 July.

The original appointment of Professor Ebdon to lead the Office for Fair Access, which he joined in September 2012, had been regarded as contentious.

The former vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire had provoked controversy by laying down the gauntlet to highly-selective universities with “patchy” records on access, saying that he would be prepared to use the “nuclear option” of stopping institutions from charging higher fees if they did not improve.

Professor Ebdon’s candidacy was opposed by Conservative MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee, but he eventually took on the post with the backing of Vince Cable, then the Liberal Democrat business secretary, and David Willetts, Mr Johnson’s predecessor.

Last month Offa reported that 2013-14 had been a “record-breaking year” for widening participation, with universities spending £802.6 million on improving access. Ninety per cent of targets set by institutions in relation to student intake were either met or on course to be met, up from 83 per cent in the previous year.

Commenting after Mr Johnson’s speech, Professor Ebdon said “significant progress” had been made on widening participation, but that there was “still a long way to go”.

“This is a clear vote of confidence in what Offa has achieved under my directorship so far,” he said. “Access to higher education has been a national success story in recent years, with participation among students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds reaching record levels.

“I will continue to work closely with universities and colleges to build on their achievements so far and make further, faster progress.”

Professor Ebdon welcomed Mr Johnson’s target to double rates of disadvantaged students entering higher education by 2020, and said the minister was “right” to call for further action from the UK’s most selective universities.

In his speech, Mr Johnson said that he wanted to see “more outreach and more innovation in terms of course length and design”, highlighting degree apprenticeships and two-year courses as being “more accessible” routes to higher education and employment.

The planned teaching excellence framework is expected to include “incentives that reward institutions who do best at retention and progression of disadvantaged students through their college years”, the minister added.

chris.havergal@tesglobal.com

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