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Selection warning for universities

Universities that fail to recruit more poor students should not be allowed to charge high tuition fees, a leading vice-chancellor has said. Professor Les Ebdon, the Government’s preferred candidate to become the new Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said he would be prepared to “press the nuclear button” if institutions do not meet tough targets.

At a pre-appointment hearing, Prof Ebdon told the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) select committee that refusing to sign a university’s access agreement is a “significant sanction” and one that he is prepared to use if necessary.

Under the Government’s major overhaul of university funding – which will see English universities charge up to £9,000 a year from this autumn – every institution setting fees at over £6,000 has to have an access agreement setting out plans to support poorer students and ensure they are not priced out.

These agreements will be reviewed and approved by the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) each year, with institutions that fail to meet their agreed targets on recruitment and retention facing fines or losing the right to charge more than £6,000. Prof Ebdon, who is currently the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University, told the cross-party group of MPs that the challenge is to set strict targets and hold people to them.

“At the moment, there are two sanctions; one is a half a million pound fine which is hardly a sanction at all and the other is to refuse to sign an access agreement and that is a significant sanction and that is clearly the sanction that one uses,” he said. “And I guess the task is to use the nuclear option with subtlety and that will be my role.”

Prof Ebdon said he would hopefully never have to press the nuclear button. But he added: “Once one talk about nuclear buttons, if you ever say you will never press the nuclear button then you don’t have a nuclear button. Clearly, I would be prepared if people didn’t.

“But my understanding and my expectation is that, through some tough negotiation, to agree. I think we will be helped by making these targets transparent, open, so people know what they are and to hold people to account in public. I think the court of public opinion is powerful.”

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