Political wrangling as Offa appointment hangs in balance

Ministers could still have the final say on whether Les Ebdon is appointed as the next director of fair access, even though it looks likely that a committee of MPs has voted against his appointment.

February 7, 2012

Official guidelines on the process by which Parliamentary committees scrutinise such appointments suggest that the decision goes back to ministers rather than MPs having a final veto on the government’s “preferred candidate”.

However, whether David Willetts, the Conservative universities and science minister, and Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, will be able to press ahead with the appointment will be the subject of fierce wrangling at a top level in the coalition.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s report on the appointment is due to be published at midday on Wednesday, 8 February, but Times Higher Education understands that the MPs have voted against the University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor getting the job thanks to a Tory majority.

Although Labour and Lib Dem MPs are in a majority on the 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.

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 is also the possibility that Professor Ebdon could withdraw his candidature in the face of the committee’s opposition.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

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