As the head of the Office for Fair Access, Professor Les Ebdon is in charge of ensuring universities open their doors to a broader range of applicants. Joshua Chambers meets a surprisingly controversial public servant
The smell of fresh coffee fills a meeting room on the 12th floor of London’s Centre Point. Gazing out of the window at the sunny autumn sky is Les Ebdon, head of the Office for Fair Access, who turns to greet me and gestures towards a gurgling machine. He’s just brewed a pot, he says; would I like some?
I decline, and wonder whether the smell is intended to put me in a good mood. Holding a warm drink has been shown to make someone more favourably inclined towards the person they’re talking to. Perhaps the smell of coffee could also unconsciously evoke a better opinion?
It wouldn’t be unreasonable if Ebdon were seeking positive press coverage. After all, he’s had a monstering from the media for his views on university access. The regulator that Ebdon heads manages the ‘access agreements’ that universities must sign up to if they wish to charge more than £6,000 a year in tuition fees, and his views on admissions are unpopular with vast swathes of the right-wing press, middle England, and the Tory grassroots. He believes that universities must open their doors to as wide a range of applicants as possible, reducing entry requirements if necessary so they don’t end up cherry-picking candidates from the best-performing schools.
Earlier this year, Ebdon’s appointment was supposed to be formally approved by the Commons’ Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, but the committee refused to do so after a revolt by the Conservative members split the vote on party lines. From the beginning of his time in public life, he has been a target for our increasingly forthright select committees and a media that’s hostile to civil servants.
In the public eye
Ebdon clearly read and remembers some of the critical coverage he received. I put it to him that this is far more publicity than an official would traditionally expect, and he responds: “Yes, especially for a ‘grey-minded individual’, or whatever I was called.”
So has being in the public eye hindered Ebdon’s ability to do his job? “I think there are pluses and minuses. I think it’s unfortunate for the independence of the regulator that stories were made up [about me], but to be honest, it’s generated a lot of sympathy for me in the university sector, where I’m already well known. Virtually every conversation I have with a vice-chancellor about their access agreement begins with: ‘I thought they were terribly unfair to you’.” He laughs loudly. “That’s always helpful. And, of course, all the ridiculous stuff written about draconian penalties and things doesn’t do any harm in negotiations.”
And while his relationship with stakeholders has survived, has being the centre of attention affected his relationship with ministers? “That’s a very interesting question. I think that it’s certainly not my intention to be commenting in the press on anything other than fair access issues, and I don’t think it is the role of an independent regulator to be quite so much in the press as I have been. It’s not something I’ve sought – but knowing that, ministers have been very understanding”.
Stand and be accountable
The select committee’s opposition to his appointment “took me quite by surprise,” Ebdon admits. After a strident committee hearing, they put out a statement saying that they were not convinced by his answers and were therefore unable to endorse him. Business secretary Vince Cable appointed him anyway, and Ebdon comments that “the point was made at the time that if Parliament wants the best and most appropriate people to apply for the jobs that are now scrutinised by select committees, I think they need to park the politics outside the room and look at candidates on their merit.”
Despite this, Ebdon says he’s “looking forward to my next interaction with the select committee and talking about how I’m approaching the job, hopefully dealing with some of the concerns that they had. Obviously I’m able now to talk with individual members, listen to and deal with any immediate concerns that they might have, which is something that is entirely inappropriate if you’re a candidate for a job.”
He’s also aware that the hostile coverage could lead him to commit one of two potential mistakes, however: “Either to think: ‘I better be on my best behaviour and tread very softly’, or to say: ‘I’ll show them and be more determined to strike out.’ The key thing is to carry on with the policy that you’ve got and not to worry about the noise off-stage.”
Omissions in admissions
While it may feel to him like a lifetime, Ebdon has headed the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) for just two months. It’s a tiny, arm’s-length body attached to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, employing only 11 people, but it has an important and controversial remit. “My role is very much about ensuring that there are no financial or other barriers in the way of students with the potential and the motivation to succeed at university,” Ebdon explains. “Every year, institutions have to submit an access agreement. Unless I approve that agreement, they can’t charge £9,000 a year fees.” He called this veto power the “nuclear option” when speaking to the select committee, and says now that while “negotiations can be tough,” he hasn’t yet had to directly threaten any universities.
OFFA also has the power to fine institutions £50,000 if they miss the targets set in their access agreements. Fines “are a last resort”, Ebdon says, but “I’ve made it quite clear that if, for example, a university made promises to students and didn’t keep those promises, then I would have no hesitation in fining them because I think, as a regulator, I have a responsibility to all students”. What sort of promises does he mean? “They may have promised bursaries but not delivered.”
Universities set their own access targets, Ebdon adds, which certainly should mean that they’re achievable. He compares the process of assessing student intake to the Public Sector Duty in the 2010 Equality Act, which requires public bodies to look at their recruitment processes and ensure there isn’t anything that could cause bias. So for universities, “looking back on your recruitment, you can see that you’ve had a bias against students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and then you can say: ‘Okay, we recognise that we’ve got an issue and a challenge here, and this is what we’re going to do about it’.”
However, the Public Sector Duty is sometimes criticised as expensive and bureaucratic. How will he ensure that access agreements don’t become too great a bureaucratic burden, or that funding them isn’t too expensive? “I’m not going to pretend [increasing access] isn’t expensive. When you have an expensive programme, the key question is whether the money is being spent effectively and well, and we’ll only know that when we get good evaluation of how it’s being spent,” Ebdon responds.
While universities have been working on this issue with both OFFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for years, he believes that the evaluation of expenditure and comparison of different universities’ efforts still isn’t sufficient: he argues that the two separate assessments run by HEFCE and OFFA should be merged, simplifying the process.
An oft-repeated criticism is that forcing universities to spend more money on access, rather than research, will harm their ability to compete internationally. “I’ve not met anybody who’s an academic who’s actually said that,” he responds. “I have seen that said by columnists in certain newspapers and it’s an absolute calumny, because what we’re trying to do in promoting fair access to our universities is reach out and find potential wherever it’s found. It’s a search for excellence; it’s about recognising that we cannot remain a world leader in our universities unless we use the full potential of our population.”
Ebdon accepts that “you will meet the occasional researcher who only wants to focus on their research, but you need to challenge that individual and say: ‘Actually, don’t you also want the best research students? Don’t you want to be working with the best people?’ And they begin to say: ‘Yes, what we’re engaged in here is vital to the health of our universities’.”