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MPs oppose Million+ chairman as Offa chief

The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has said it is unable to endorse the appointment of Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of university group Million+, as the next director of the Office for Fair Access.

The statement was made in a report following a pre-appointment hearing with Ebdon on 2 February, at which a majority of Conservative MPs were present. Labour and Liberal Democrats are normally in a majority on the committee, but Labour MPs Julie Elliott and Paul Blomfield and Lib Dem MP David Ward did not attend.

The committee’s report says that Labour MPs Katy Clark and Ann McKechin supported the appointment while Tory MPs Rebecca Harris, Margot James, Simon Kirby and Nadhim Zahawi opposed it.

“While he demonstrated an all-round understanding of widening participation, we were not convinced by Professor Ebdon’s descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities,” reads the committee report.

“Therefore, we have to question his evidence in respect of two of the criteria for selection, namely ‘promote the strengths of the arguments in face of opposition’ and ‘communicate persuasively and publicly, with excellent presentational stills’.”

It is now up to the government to respond to the report and decide whether to accept its recommendations.

Ebdon faced a grilling at the hearing, with the MPs raising concern that he had been “passionately opposed to the government’s policy”.

He was also challenged for arguing that Russell Group of research-intensive universities displayed a “patchy performance” on widening access.

“How will you support those universities you are clearly critical of?” asked Zahawi, MP for Stratford on Avon.

“How can you reassure this committee that you will remain focused on the task at hand and not be tempted, because we are all human beings, to use that platform to effectively promote your own vision of how we ought to run education in this country versus what you need to do, which is effectively deliver on the task that is before you?” he added.

Ebdon replied that it was not for the head of Offa to decide government policy but to make sure there were not “adverse consequences for particular groups who otherwise would not be able to access higher education.

“I am quite clear that, if I take on this role, I will no longer be able to comment on a wide range of educational issues. I have only done so at the moment because I am a Vice-Chancellor and I believe it has been appropriate for me to comment on those issues in the interests of my university and my students,” he said.