Offa's 'Imperial lad' ready to access all areas in leading role

Les Ebdon discusses context, excellence and life-transforming opportunities with John Morgan

September 6, 2012

Determined: Offa's plans to widen access will prove challenging for the most selective institutions, says new chief Les Ebdon

The new director of fair access has warned selective universities that they should not "underestimate the challenges they face" to widen participation - and has pledged to support institutions that use contextual admissions data.

In an interview with Times Higher Education to mark the start of his tenure at the Office for Fair Access on 3 September, Les Ebdon discussed the political row over his appointment, in which he was criticised by Conservative backbenchers and described by the right-leaning press as a "social engineer".

Asked to explain the hostility, he said there was "a suggestion that the reason I shouldn't be appointed was if I got the job, I might actually do it".

He also had only brief praise for his predecessor, Sir Martin Harris, in post since Offa's foundation in 2004: "Martin Harris has made a good start [and] set the office up."

Critics of Professor Ebdon, who was until recently chair of the Million+ group of new universities, have targeted his support for contextual data (when the background of applicants is taken into account to boost the admission of disadvantaged students with talent but without the highest grades).

But the former University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor defended his support for such measures. "I think where a university has decided to use contextual data and they evidence base for it...that's clearly something that Offa will want to support," he said.

But he added: "We're certainly not going to go around telling people this is a path they have got to go down. This is one of the options."

There is doubt about whether existing legislation gives Offa power over admissions or just applications.

Professor Ebdon stressed that it was not for him "to lay down the admissions or indeed the applications policy for a university", but added: "We will be looking to see whether [universities] are sufficiently challenging in terms of the targets they set for a variety of activities, and indeed [the] mix of admissions they expect to achieve as a result of those actions. And we'll be monitoring...that."

Open-minded negotiations

Universities must agree with Offa plans to widen access to disadvantaged groups. If no agreement is reached, the body can bar them from charging fees above £6,000. But would Professor Ebdon simply reject an access agreement or negotiate with the institution in question?

"Obviously, negotiation is the way forward," he said. But he added: "I expect a process of real don't start negotiations by saying that you are definitely going to approve."

Of the most selective universities, Professor Ebdon said: "It would be wrong to underestimate the challenges they face. I hope we can support and encourage them in that."

But he added: "Certain parts of the press have tried to make me out as hostile to some parts of the sector. I think the sector knows that's absolute nonsense."

Professor Ebdon - who went from a council estate to grammar school, then Imperial College London and an academic career in analytical chemistry - said that his experience has "taught me about the life-transforming opportunities that university brings".

Specifically, he noted the benefits of attending his own highly selective university: "People looked favourably upon me because I was an Imperial lad."

By 2016-17, the sector will be spending more than £800 million a year on access, Professor Ebdon said, so he will place greater emphasis on research into the effectiveness of measures such as bursaries.

Offa will be producing more evidence-based reports, "in collaboration with institutions" he hoped.

Asked if the political row over his appointment would make it hard for him to do the job, Professor Ebdon countered that it had left him with "even greater determination" and a desire to show that "access is about excellence".

Access matters not just in terms of individuals being able to fulfil their potential but also for the UK's standing, he said.

"If we limit the pool of talent that can access our universities, then we limit our national success in a world that is going to be dominated by those countries that are able to use their intelligence and...creativity."

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