The National Union of Students (NUS) today (Wednesday) warned that the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee's unprecedented attempt to block the appointment of Professor Les Ebdon as the new director of the Officer of Fair Access (OFFA) risked severely undermining attempts to ensure fair access to universities.
Professor Ebdon had been endorsed by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable and Conservative Universities Minister David Willetts but was rejected by a Conservative minority of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee entitled to vote on his appointment because they "were not convinced by Professor Ebdon’s descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities".
Professor Ebdon’s appointment had also been approved by a selection board which included Tim Melville Ross, Chair of the Board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and Alan Milburn, the Government’s social mobility and child poverty tsar.
NUS warned political interference served not only to dramatically undermine Secretary of State Vince Cable and Universities Minister David Willetts, but also risked undermining the independence and integrity of fair access regulation by opening up the appointment process to political interference.
On the appointment of the new OFFA director, Liam Burns, NUS President said:
"The strong-arm tactics and underhand political interference by those seeking to block the appointment process to this crucial position seek not only to embarrass Vince Cable and David Willetts, but also serve to undermine the independence of fair access regulation and create further instability for students."
"The allegation that Professor Ebdon, the respected vice chancellor of a university with huge success of widening participation lacks adequate knowledge of access issues is so utterly bizarre and ill-founded that is almost laughable. In truth, this has nothing to do with Professor Ebdon's experience of getting those from poorer backgrounds into university and everything to do with an old boys network of elite vice-chancellors thinking that they can pick their own watchdog."
"Both the Secretary of State and Universities Minister have behaved wholly appropriately in choosing an eminently qualified and respected candidate who has now been through a rigorous application process. We are now in a position where his appointment has been stalled both by those practising the dark arts behind the scenes and by a minority of committee members for the most spurious of reasons."
On student confidence in access regulation, Liam Burns added:
"How are students expected to have confidence in the Office for Fair Access if the proper appointments process is undermined and the preferred candidate of ministers is nobbled because university heads fear he might actually use his powers to hold them to account?"
"After years of OFFA as a toothless watchdog, followed by the abandonment of promised powers to ensure fair access through the Government's shelving of the higher education bill, and now political interference in the appointment of the access watchdog, students' confidence in OFFA fulfilling its crucial mission is now at breaking point."
"We now stand at risk of ending up with the appointment of a political stooge who will fail to take the robust approach to access regulation we so desperately need."