Speaking at a Business, Innovation and Skills Committee hearing on 19 March, Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, said he had not asked universities to go beyond the targets for accepting poorer students that were set down in last year’s access agreements, which were signed off by Sir Martin Harris in his final year in charge of Offa.
“The last set [of access agreements] had a number of ambitious targets in them,” Professor Ebdon told MPs.
“I am not seeking to ask people to enhance the ambition of those targets, but seek to sustain the ambition of those targets,” he said.
“I’ve said [2012 onwards] would be a period of greater challenge…and the greater challenge would be to sustain those targets despite the changes which are going on,” he added.
Professor Ebdon’s acceptance of existing targets for the 2013-14 access agreements appears to run contrary to previous statements on access, in which he challenged highly-selective universities to do more to admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
At a BIS committee in February last year before he took office, Professor Ebdon said the performance on access by selective universities was in some cases going backwards.
He pledged to look closely at the benchmarks they were using to measure performance on the issue – raising the prospect that universities would be asked to do more to increase their numbers of poor students.
“We actually have a major challenge in this area and if we don’t take it on, if we lose more ground at this juncture, then we will suffer as a nation,” he told the committee last year.
Professor Ebdon was later criticised by several newspapers for his threat to use the “nuclear option” of withholding a university’s access agreement if a university failed to do more to promote access – a move which would prevent it from charging more than £6,000 a year in fees.
The furore raised some doubt over whether Professor Ebdon’s appointment would be confirmed, though he eventually took office in September last year.
Asked on 19 March if he would consider using the ultimate sanction on universities, Professor Ebdon said he did not expect to use any “sanctions” on universities and instead chose to praise the good work happening in the sector.