The appointment of Les Ebdon as the new director of OFFA continues to make headlines. The unjustified personal attacks on him and the University of Bedfordshire have broadened to an assault on OFFA itself and on the HE sector as a whole. It is both a dangerous and an ill-informed debate.

Many commentators and politicians continue to misunderstand and misrepresent the role of OFFA and in some cases wilfully so. For the avoidance of doubt, it does not set central targets or quotas for poor students with poor A levels to go to ‘elite’ universities. It does exist to monitor the access agreements and targets that institutions set themselves. Remember that all institutions are committed to the principles of fair access and that this mission for the sector has been universally accepted by both institutions and political parties since the Robbins and Dearing reports.

OFFA was established in 2004 – ironically to satisfy some on the left of the governing Labour party who were unhappy about the access track records of some universities. In 2010, the coalition’s increase of fees to £6 – 9k were accompanied by a  renewed commitment to OFFA and the role of access agreements in ensuring fair access and social mobility. The higher fees were to also include new expenditure on the National Scholarship Programme and were aimed as much at retention in WP institutions as at recruitment and admissions in others. All of this was clearly set out during the debates that led up to the tuition fees vote – and each of the BIS Select Committee MPs that ‘vetoed’ the appointment of Les Ebdon and those that spoke against him and OFFA in the debate yesterday voted for those changes.

But more dangerous are the attacks on the HE sector as a whole, its diversity and its attempts to widen participation. In GuildHE’s response to the confirmation of Les Ebdon’s appointment we said that the UK needs all of its universities and colleges and that all institutions need to seek out, recruit and retain the very best candidates. Of either there should be little doubt and perhaps even some agreement.  Cumulatively the UK doesn’t actually produce very many graduates at least when compared to the top performing countries in the OECD. We also invest significantly less in higher education – from both public and private sources – than the same OECD countries in North America, Europe and the Far East.

And to those that continue to claim that too many go to university and that point to graduate unemployment as the consequence, it’s worth reminding them that the employment rate for graduates across the EU has actually increased since the recession struck in 2008. In the UK the employment rate and wage returns for all graduates remains equally strong. Our problem is not that too many go to university, it is that too few do.

At the institutional level there is an equally important issue at stake. All must be – and are – dedicated to excellence and all must continue to seek out the very best and the very brightest from wherever they come. The very best exist in every part of society, in every school and college and amongst all age groups and cultures. Relying on anything narrower than that will inevitably exclude some of the best and most talented as well as those likely to benefit most from higher education.

Economists describe organisations and sectors (and national economies) that do what they have always done as ‘path dependent’. That can be as much a problem for universities as it is for economies that aspire to be world class. Finding new talent wherever it exists and developing more and better human capital is a key goal for all countries and organisations interested in education, innovation and economic growth. It is also the basis of academic excellence and freedom. Our job across the higher education sector – and that of OFFA too – must be to remind people of this value and this purpose.

Andy Westwood – CEO

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