Tory MP attacks Ebdon over latest access comments

The new director of the Office for Fair Access, Les Ebdon, has been accused by an MP of "salivating" at the prospect of handing fines of up to £500,000 to universities that miss targets for widening their student base.

September 8, 2012

In an open letter to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, Conservative MP Brian Binley warns that Professor Ebdon's appetite for imposing "nuclear penalties" on institutions that fail to widen access sufficiently could have damaging consequences.

"Do we face the prospect of parents being means-tested as part of the university admissions process? And, if the figures do not equate, does that imply that certain young people will be excluded - from either poor or wealthy backgrounds - not on the basis of their academic credentials, but on the socio-economic status of their parents and neighbourhoods. How can that be compatible with the concept of 'fair access'?" Mr Binley writes.

He says he is responding to comments made by Professor Ebdon in an interview with the Daily Telegraph on 6 September, where the former University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor suggested that ultimately one poor student should be admitted for each candidate enlisted from the wealthiest 20 per cent of households. The ratio currently stands at around one-to-seven.

In his letter, Mr Binley re-stated concerns about the appointment of Professor Ebdon expressed by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, of which he is a member.

In February, the committee controversially rejected Professor Ebdon's selection as the preferred candidate for the role when Tory MPs on the group voted against his candidature, although the decision was overruled by BIS ministers.

"It seems that our worst fears are coming to fruition - not least his threat that one poor student should be admitted for each candidate enlisted from the wealthiest twenty per cent of households," Mr Binley's letter continues.

"He is reported to be an advocate of using information on students' family background, school performance and ethnicity to make lower-grade offers to poor teenagers, and, within hours of taking up his post, appears to be salivating at the prospect of fining institutions up to £500,000."

In closing, the letter questions the "efficacy of [the] decision to proceed with the appointment" of Professor Ebdon.

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