MPs reject Les Ebdon's selection as Offa director

A political row over the next director of fair access has been sparked after Tory MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee rejected the selection of Les Ebdon as preferred candidate.

February 8, 2012

As predicted by Times Higher Education, the committee has published a report that fails to endorse the vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of Million+ for the post.

The decision now goes back to David Willetts, the Conservative universities and science minister, and Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, who both approved his selection and can still insist that he his given the role.

However, whether they will be able to press ahead with the appointment is now the subject of fierce wrangling at a top level in the coalition with both prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said to be involved.

Professor Ebdon himself has issued a statement saying he is still “very interested” in the role despite the committee’s report.

Although Labour and Lib Dem MPs are in a majority on the BIS committee, Parliamentary rules mean only those present at Professor Ebdon’s “pre-appointment” hearing last week were able to vote. All five Tory MPs were present at the hearing, but two Labour MPs and the Lib Dem MP were missing.

The final vote saw four Tory MPs choose to reject his appointment with two Labour MPs choosing to approve Professor Ebdon. A fifth Tory MP – Brian Binley - chose not to attend the final meeting while the Labour chair, Adrian Bailey, did not use his casting vote as he could not overturn the decision.

One of the Labour MPs who was unable to vote on the outcome, Paul Blomfield, said Professor Ebdon had been the victim of a “political ambush" which “had more to do with coalition politics than concern with access to our universities”.

“It is students from poorer backgrounds who will suffer from this appalling game-playing,” he said. “Professor Ebdon has a strong leadership experience at the highest level in higher education and a great track record on improving access to university.

“He would be an effective champion for improving participation from under-represented groups. I hope the business secretary will ignore this game-playing, and confirm the appointment.”

In the committee’s report, the MPs state that concerns about Professor Ebdon’s “suitability” for the post “arose during his evidence and we struggled to get a clear picture of Professor Ebdon’s strategy for the future of Offa”.

“While he demonstrated an all-round understanding of widening participation, we were not convinced by Professor Ebdon’s descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities.

“Therefore, we have to question his evidence in respect of two of the criteria for selection, namely ‘promote the strengths of the arguments in face of opposition’ and ‘communicate persuasively and publicly, with excellent presentational skills’.

“We are unable to endorse the appointment of Professor Ebdon as the director of Offa and we recommend that the department conduct a new recruitment exercise.”

Professor Ebdon faced intense questioning from the Tory members of the committee about his suitability for the role, including whether his previous views on the sector would influence his approach.

He responded 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 measure up.

This led to a barrage of negative media coverage in the right-wing press. There have also been suggestions in the press that Mr Cable was alone in being behind Professor Ebdon’s selection despite the fact Mr Willetts also approved.

Mr Willetts and Mr Cable are now in the difficult situation that if they grant him the role, the government will face a backlash from Tory MPs, while returning to the drawing board will mean more uncertainty for the sector and may undermine their positions.

There was also the possibility that Professor Ebdon could withdraw his candidature in the face of the committee’s opposition, but he has stood firm. In a statement he said: “I am still very interested in becoming the next director of Offa. I know that the secretary of state is considering the report of the select committee and I am awaiting his decision.” 

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that Mr Cable remained of the view that Professor Ebdon was the "right candidate for the role", but added that the business secretary would "urgently consider" his response to the report.

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