Today we hear that Les Ebdon has been vetoed by the BIS select committee as the next head of OFFA. In a new process of scrutiny and endorsement, committee members voted 4-2 against appointing him arguing that in his appearance before them they ‘struggled to get a clear picture of his strategy for the future of OFFA’. Even the Daily Mail got involved in claiming that No. 10 and others had also weighed in and that Professor Ebdon was a champion of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees and social engineering.
It’s all a bit embarrassing for Vince Cable and David Willetts who did deserve some credit for picking him as their preferred candidate. Now there’s every possibility that they might now ignore the four back bench Conservative MPs who took a dislike to Les. But why did they object? Was it because Les Ebdon was a vocal critic of the coalition’s higher education reforms? Ministers were clearly able to rise above that. Was it because he has regularly criticised the track records of ‘elite’ universities and threatened the ‘nuclear option’ against them in his hearing? Possibly – but that is precisely what OFFA exists to do. Perhaps the MPs were voting against the very idea of OFFA – of its interference in how and who universities recruit? This last issue seems a pretty plausible explanation to me.
But what will Cable and Willetts do now? They both believe in OFFA as a key organisation in their HE reform agenda – although their precise opinions may differ slightly from each others. They and their reforms will be undermined if they back down and restart what has already proved a challenging recruitment process. Broader coalition ambitions for social mobility may also be weakened and it will be much harder for them to talk in such terms.
But the dissenters on the BIS committee and elsewhere should be reminded that OFFA – whoever runs it – can only intervene when institutions fall short of the targets that they have set themselves in their recent access agreements. So even a self confessed critic of the Russell Group like Les will only be able to pull them up if they fail to do what they said they would. It’s not much and if we take such institutions at their word they all want to make more progress on access and participation in coming years.
So what’s the big deal? Vince Cable and David Willetts should have the courage of their convictions and if the Select Committee MPs don’t like OFFA they should have the courage of theirs. Either way, #offalesthejob….
Andy Westwood – CEO