A group of MPs have refused to endorse the Government’s choice of director for its university access body. This has led to anger within the government, especially from Vince Cable, the minister responsible for the appointment.
Members of the Commons Select Committee for Business, Innovation and Skills advised the government to undertake a new recruitment process instead of selecting Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, to lead the Office of Fait Access (OFFA).
Although the decision cannot force the government into action, it does highlight a difference in opinion within the coalition. Cable’s selection was supported by education minister Michael Gove, along with higher education minister David Willets and social mobility adviser Alan Milburn.
However the four members of the committee which rejected Ebdon were Conservatives, drawing criticism from their Lib Dem colleague.
The committee report on the matter stated, “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.”
They added, “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 skills’.”
Robin McGhee, Lib Dem candidate for Oxford City Council and St Anne’s undergraduate told Cherwell, “Opposing this appointment is an attack on the powerful concessions the Lib Dems got in government on this matter. By opposing it, the Tories have had their cake, eaten it, sicked it up, and eaten it again, with claret.”
Miles Coates, Oxford University Conservative Association President disagreed, stating, “The MPs had legitimate doubts about Professor Ebdon’s suitability for the role, and they would have done a disservice to access and to their personal principles had they not expressed them.
The committee’s decision came just days before the government abandoned plans to impose penalties on students who pay off university loans early, a policy which Cable had intended to introduce.
This scheme would cost graduates thousands if they chose to clear their debts within 30 years of leaving university. However ministers claim that the consultation process demonstrated that those most likely to be hit by extra payments would not be the most wealthy but those earning around £18,000.
Coates described the decision as “welcome news,” adding, “Penalising such people for being financially responsible is grossly unfair.”
However Socialist Workers Party member Nathan Akehurst commented, “The U-turn on loan repayments exposes the logic of the tuition fee raise for what it was, not to ‘improve student choice’ or whatever chimera they constructed about it, but to force poorer students to pay for a macroeconomic crisis they were not responsible for.”
Matt Waller, PPE student, stated, “The interest rate for student loans is, by definition, lessor or equal to the rate of inflation. This means that the people who wait to pay it off are actually paying relatively less money. A penalty for early repayment is an unjustifiable tax on those who want to provide the government with more money in real terms.”