Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Les Ebdon to lead OFFA

Although the Times Higher had the story a few days ago, BIS only confirmed yesterday that Les Ebdon is (subject to Parliamentary scrutiny at a pre-appointment hearing on Thursday 2 February) to be the next Director of Fair Access.

The last two Directors - Martin Harris and Graeme Davies - were old university VCs of the old school. Les Ebdon is still an ex-VC but his heritage (Bedfordshire and Million+) is a good deal less grand. Compared to earlier reports that the Government wanted someone from outside the sector, I suppose he constitutes a kind of half-way house. Potentially, though, the elite universities might have preferred someone from outside the sector who had not spent the last four years at Million+ diligently (if not always successfully) fighting against their interests.

The appointment is a consequential one because Government proposes to quadruple OFFA's resources (to nearly 12 people...) and, more importantly, consider new statutory powers. The delay to the HE Bill will allow Prof Ebdon to have a greater impact on what those new powers might be. The current OFFA is, by design, pretty much powerless; the White Paper, by contrast, suggested powers that would probably prove contentious if they ever came to be included in a Bill, such as:
  • the power to instruct an institution to spend a specific amount on access or retention from its additional fee income; 
  • a more flexible range of sanctions; or 
  • to make public an assessment of any institution that the Director feels is not making sufficient progress against its Access Agreement.
 It will be interesting to see how this appointment pans out, and perhaps worth watching the Select Committee website to see how things go on Thursday.

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