Les Ebdon confirmed as new head of OFFA
20 Feb 2012
So the government has seen sense (or more likely in the world of realpolitik David Cameron did a compromise deal with Vince Cable) and has allowed the appointment of Professor Les Ebdon as the new head of OFFA to go ahead.
Offa has this morning confirmed his appointment. The outgoing head, Sir Martin Harris, said of his successor, who will take over later this year: “I am confident that all universities will find that he takes a fair, balanced and considered approach to the very difficult issues of fair access and widening participation, helping them continue to work with schools to raise aspirations and standards.”
In a letter to the Select Committee, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, said its report did 'not raise any new, relevant facts about Professor Ebdon's suitability for the post'. However, he did say he took 'seriously' the committee's concerns over his presentational skills, and noted the Professor Ebdon himself 'felt he could perhaps have performed more effectively'. Professor Ebdon has agreed to return to the committee for further monitoring sessions.
The whole kerfuffle over his appointment has been bizarre and has led to some over-heated journalism and media commentary. The Daily Telegraph, for example, has been banging on about how Professor Ebdon has ignored the fact that the biggest obstacle to broadening university admissions is the performance of schools. But they are missing the much more obvious point which is that OFFA has no power to tell schools how or what to teach. Its remit is with universities.
His critics say he is determined to force universities to take lower qualified students as part of a social engineering agenda and to compensate for poor schooling. Yet his supposed willingness to press the 'nuclear' button with universities was an unfair extrapolation of an answer to the Select Committee members who attempted to block his appointment. Asked if he would be willing to use the powers that OFFA already has, Professor Ebdon said he would use them, but only as a last resort. What else could he sensibly say? If a regulator says it will never use its powers, who will listen to it? It did not mean he was itching to press the trigger, anymore than anyone with their finger on a real nuclear button would wish to do so.
The crucial point about fair admissions is that previous experience (type of school, family background etc) should be taken into consideration when assessing a student's potential at university. No advocate of fair admissions is saying that less bright students should be taken just because of the background. But sometimes - just as when a student has been ill or has suffered a family tragedy - there may be grounds for saying the applicant is better than their exam results would suggest. It is in the university's own interest to take that into account if they want to get the best performing undergraduates. Any employer would assess a candidate in the round and take the one they think who do the job the best. That may not always be the one with the best exam results. After all, no university would ever want to admit a student who would not cope with the academic pressures of a course.
Anyway, now this silliness is over, let's hope OFFA can get on and do the job it was intended to do, which is ensuring that the ables students (in terms of of both results and potential) are able to achieve their potential. And maybe some of the columnists who have seethed about this will take the time to read what Les Ebdon actually said on the issue rather than believing he had 'threatened' nuclear penalties. He may not have given the best performance at the Select Committee but that was because he appeared bemused by the the line of questioning from a few Tory MPs who were more concerned to make a political point about school performance than to ask him what he thought Offa should do.
The affair raises one other important point: the Business Innovation & Skills Committee - which monitors higher education policy - has a very wide remit that goes well beyond universities. As such, its membership has a greater expertise in business matters than in education, unlike - for example - the Commons Education committee that oversees policy on schools.