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Education: What cost access?

01 February 2013

The new head of the Office of Fair Access, Professor Les Ebdon, is confident that he can widen entry to the top universities in the UK, says Margaret Holness

THE uproar provoked by the choice of Les Ebdon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, to head the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) was startling.

OFFA's task is to bring down the barriers that stand between bright working-class and ethnic-minority young people and higher education; and persuade the élite universities, in particular, to widen their recruitment, possibly by giving lower offers to applicants from disadvantaged areas.

Right-of-centre commentators were vituperative. Professor Ebdon was described variously as a "functionary from a minor university", an "access bore", "grey-minded", and a "platitude-spouting menace".

David Cameron was "understood to have serious concerns", and the House of Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills refused to endorse the appointment made by the Secretary of State, Vince Cable, and backed by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts.

Presumably Dr Cable and Mr Willetts saw the charge that Profes-sor Ebdon had constantly expressed concern that higher tuition fees might act as a deterrent to working-class students as a qualification for the task he had been given. They did not back down, and he took up the post at the beginning of the academic year.

Reflecting on the controversy, some weeks into the job, Professor Ebdon admits that he was surprised. "I think they were afraid I might actually do the job," he says.

And he is wasting no time. "Do you know that in post-1990 universities the ratio of students from the poorest 40 per cent of the population and the richest 20 per cent, is 1-1, while at Russell Group universities it's 1-7?" he says. "It's getting worse, because it used to be 1-6."

Professor Ebdon likes the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and ecumenical institutions in the Cathedral Group, because he believes that they are serious about their inclusive mission statements. And they like him. Professor Joy Carter, their chair, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winchester, speaks of Professor Ebdon's "genuine passion for widening participation".

Russell Group vice-chancellors, on the other hand, were said to be more wary, particularly after it was reported that he had threatened to "use the nuclear option" to bring them into line.

"It's true," he says, that he said that he was prepared to use the powers of his office to fine universities as much as £500,000 for persistently failing to broaden their student base. As it stands, universities have to agree their fees with the Office for Fair Access, and its approval depends on whether they have effective access plans.

WHERE does this passion come from? Primarily from his Christian faith: Professor Ebdon is a Baptist lay preacher who is not embarrassed to admit to his belief that all human potential is God-given, and that no one should be held back.

There is also something of the Old Testament prophet about his concern for the most disadvantaged, and his stubborn refusal to be deflected from his vision, however uncomfortable the recriminations that come his way. In fact, he prays regularly about his task.

There is also his own background: born in a north-east-London suburb, 65 years ago, he grew up in Hemel Hempstead, part of the idealistic post-war New Town movement. His father worked in the Development Corporation's accounts department.

One of four children, Professor Ebdon did well in Hemel Hempstead's grammar school, and went on to read chemistry at Imperial College, London - the first in his family to enter higher education. It was only after he graduated that his father told him how "held back" he felt by his lack of a degree.

Professor Ebdon believes strongly that the first family member to go to university acts as a catalyst for the whole family. One brother took a part-time degree; another got into the University of Bath on clearing, and went on to do a Ph.D. at Cambridge. His sister, a nurse, is also now a graduate.

His first job was teaching chem- istry at Makerere University, Uganda, where he worked with colleagues from the Church Mission Society. The advent of Idi Amin's regime sent him home after two years to teach analytical chemistry at Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University).

In 1981, Professor Ebdon moved to what is now Plymouth University, becoming head of environmental sciences; then he became Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic Development. It was in the latter post that he achieved the creation of a medical school at Plymouth; the first in a "new" university, and with a fair complement of medical students from non-traditional backgrounds.

It is important, he says, to have more doctors who are from working-class and ethnic-minority backgrounds, and are prepared to work in disadvantaged areas.

He became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Luton (later Bedfordshire) in 2003, and retired this year. His successor is Bill Rammell, a former Labour higher-education minister, who supported top-up fees.

WHILE Professor Ebdon's academic success was thoroughly traditional and science-based, he has suggested that students from non-traditional backgrounds could be accepted for élite universities with lower-than-usual grades.

Inevitably, this view has been challenged by opponents who think that the impetus should start by schools' becoming more demanding of their students. Or that the return of grammar schools - such as the one that was his own pathway to Imperial - might better serve able working-class children.

His answers are clear. "It's easier to get top grades if you're at Eton than at a comprehensive on a disadvantaged estate. And, remember, that bringing back grammar schools means the return of 'secondary mods'."

He believes that the more effective, and more ethical, route is that demanded by his office: the patient, strategic courting of working-class and ethnic-minority families by the universities themselves.

He lists the possibilities: bursaries; fee waivers; and taster courses that give inner-city students an experience of university life and advanced study. Last summer, he attended a taster course at Oxford University. "It was wonderful. I wanted to go myself," he says.

Particularly effective, he suggests, is the influence of role-models, or student ambassadors: working-class and ethnic-minority graduates who go back to their old schools to demonstrate what can be achieved, and encourage others to take the same opportunities.

Will OFFA succeed? "Between them, universities will be spending £809 million on access over the next four years. So the answer is yes, of course."

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