In a recent interview with TES, the head of the Office for Fair Access spoke in support of vocational and technical education and lamented the “dreadful snobbery about whether people go to university or which university they go to”.
That prompted Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer and former education minister, to write in a letter to TES posted on his blog: “I am not sure that Les Ebdon is fit to hold his post if he believes it is ‘dreadful snobbery’ for schools to be encouraged to send as many pupils as possible to elite universities.”
Professor Ebdon reportedly said that his comments had been taken out of context. But Rob Wilson, Conservative MP for Reading East and a former shadow higher education minister, said his worries over Professor Ebdon “have never gone away”.
“There is huge concern right across the government back benches and front bench, amongst the Conservative members of the government at least,” he said.
“I am very disappointed that ministers have failed to comprehend the damage that current policies are going to do to fair access to universities,” he added.
Last week, Professor Ebdon signalled a growing willingness to tackle Russell Group universities when he spoke at an Institute for Employment Studies’ conference in London.
He referred to an earlier speaker at the event, Nigel Thrift, the vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, which is a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities.
“I was very pleased that Nigel Thrift mentioned the importance of outreach,” Professor Ebdon told the event, held on 28 November and titled The Value of Higher Education.
“I’m sure we’re looking forward to a major change in the University of Warwick access agreement as they switch more money into outreach.
“We are continually told, both in the press and elsewhere, that the challenge for Russell Group universities is not anything they do but what goes on in the schools.”
Professor Ebdon added: “We suggest the best use of their access agreement money is in outreach activity, reaching out to the schools and working with the schools to increase the pool of applicants that they are looking for.”