The Office for fair access to Higher Education (OFFA) has a new Director. The appointment of Professor Les Ebdon of Bedforshire University to this post has caused a strong argument in Parliament. Its details reveal much about the state of current UK political thinking.
The Office for fair access is the product of Labour thinking in the early 2000s. They set up the quango to deal with the scandal that far more pupils from independent schools get places at the top universities compared to comprehensive schools, when allowing for the numbers of potential applicants in each case. Labour were clear that they needed to cajole, persuade or lean on the top universities to take more pupils from state schools. Their policy implied that the fault lay with the universities in ignoring obvious talent. The underlying instinct was that these universities are ignoring well educated young people from state schools out of prejudice or through their traditional networks encouraging laziness in recruitment. Many Lib Dems seem to be in sympathy with this thinking.
It fell to Dr Cable to recuit a new boss of Labour’s organisation. When his choice, Les Ebdon, was called before the Select Committee for a confirmation hearing, he worried the Committee. He seemed to say that he would use the powers of his office to require larger proportions of state pupils at top universities, by naming, shaming and removing grants if they did not comply. Some Committee members felt he wished to override the fundamental principle that the universities themselves have to make their own decisions about who is suitable to have a place, and who is well enough equipped to make good use of one. They recommended that the government did not confirm the appointment. Dr Cable disagrees with the Committee.
The row is an intense one. All three main political parties are agreed that they want a world in which more young people from comprehensive schools go to top universities. Labour and Lib Dems think it needs a Les Ebdon to push the universities. Many Conservatives thinks the fault lies in the state comprehensive schools. The people at top universities I know are as keen on social mobility as the political parties. Many will choose a state school pupil over an independent school pupil if all else is equal. Some will go further and allow for worse teaching, poorer background and the like in their assessment. These universities have programmes to encourage state pupils to apply. They organise sessions for pupils and teachers to learn more of their requirements. They signal very clearly that they want high grade high quality A levels in difficult subjects as a basic requirement. We need to ask why the creators of comprehensive education, who have boosted spending on it by so much in recent years, still think universities need to make allowances for a state education as if it were an impediment to progress.
Dr Cable’s insistence on Les Ebdon has radicalised more Conservative MPs on this subject. Now many would like the whole Office abolished. They just do not think there is a quick and fair fix by pressurising top universities into taking people they would not choose for academic reasons. On this issue the Conservative party is no defender of privilege, no reactionary group wanting Eton to win in the university place stakes through having superior connections and money. There is just a strong feeling that years of comprehensive education has not achieved the breakthrough in standards and spread the love of learning as planned, especially in the more deprived areas. There is a fear that ripping out so many grammar schools has cut social mobility, not improved it. Most Conseravtives want to fix the state schools, not penalise the good universities.We will review this question tomorrow.