The likely appointment of Professor Les Ebdon at Offa is a step in the right direction – but does not solve the underlying problem
University entrance is in a mess. It is a mess that is damaging to individual students whose potential is wasted, and damaging to an economy which cannot compete without an expanding, well-educated workforce. Up to now, coalition policy has made matters worse rather than better. The good news is that the appointment of the University of Bedford’s Professor Les Ebdon to the Office for Fair Access is a small step in the right direction. But it has come only after a spurious political row, and it does nothing to address the real problem underlying access to higher education.
Conservatives are neuralgic about a perceived falling-off in standards, and some suspected that Professor Ebdon, who has defended newer degree subjects like media studies against critics who say they cannot be intellectually challenging, would undermine admissions autonomy with his power to cap the fees universities charge if they failed to improve access. In a highly unorthodox move, a group of Tories on the Commons business committee, apparently encouraged by the education secretary Michael Gove – and, it was said, some independent schools and Russell Group universities – told the business secretary Vince Cable to look again for a new boss for Offa. Happily, after David Cameron said he had no power to oppose it, on Monday the appointment is expected to be confirmed.
The particular Tory target was the idea of contextual admissions – that is, recognising that students from less academic schools often do better at university than those from selective schools who got similar A-level grades. Mr Gove says his schools reforms will lever up results: not soon enough, say the Lib Dems, and especially not, say Labour MPs, when policies like education maintenance allowance that made a difference were early victims of austerity.
In a piece of window dressing, discontented Tories were told that the abandonment of plans for an early-repayment penalty on the higher student loans that start in September was a quid pro quo for Professor Ebdon. In fact, as the LSE expert Nicholas Barr and the NUS president Liam Burns both point out, the generous loan structure means early repayment would rarely make sense in narrow financial terms. Of course the odd well-heeled parent may be determined to clear the debt of their graduate child, and that leaves a sour taste in a world where everyone else will be repaying for decades.
The real issue, however, remains entirely ignored. The generous terms of the loan come at a cost which is deemed to preclude an overall increase in the number of students. Sold as a way of keeping up the numbers in higher education, they are actually working against it.
• This article was amended on 20 February 2012 to clarify a reference to neuralgia.