Access plans labelled 'social engineering'
Members of Parliament and media are criticising the appointment of the new university fair access 'tsar', with some describing his office’s plans for disadvantaged pupils as 'social engineering'.
Professor Les Ebdon, appointed by business secretary Vince Cable, has been confirmed as director of the education watchdog Office for Fair Access (Offa).
He has previously told MPs that he is prepared to press "the nuclear button" on universities charging top tuition fees, such as the University of the Arts (UAL), if they fail to show that they protect access for poor or underrepresented groups.
UAL's Student Union calls the plans "good". Fairooz Aniqa, Culture and Diversity Officer, says: "It's about time some direct action is taken. The government has already done enough to restrict the right to education from the masses and it seems they will not stop until education is completely privatised and reserved for the ruling classes."
The University management was unavailable for comment.
'Root of the problem'
Critics say that Ebdon's views and Offa's plans to ensure easier access through the admissions process for disadvantaged applicants fail to target the ‘root of the problem’.
They say education will suffer, as emphasis moves away from academic merit to social class.
There has been disagreement within the coalition leading up to the appointment.
Apart from backbenchers, David Cameron and education secretary Michael Gove reportedly opposed it, while universities minister David Willetts supported it.
Ebdon, dubbed the 'university access tsar' or 'university gatekeeper' by media commentators, is the target of heavy criticism.
The Telegraph even called his ideas "a heavy-handed attempt at social engineering" in an editorial.
Such criticism echoes a new report by Tory MPs from the Fair Access to University Group (Faug).
Together with the cross-party Education Select Committee, they have published Achieving Fair Access: Removing Barriers, Realising Potential.
The report argues that “interference” with admissions will be "counter-productive".
Rather than intervening with policy, the authors want to target ‘practical barriers’ at schools, which supposedly cause talented disadvantaged students to miss out.
“It is not surprising that independent and selective schools, by studying the subjects that our top universities value, have an in-built advantage in the admissions process,” the report says.
For example, it suggests scrapping the UCAS points system – which puts 'soft' subjects on par with more 'rigorous' ones – and making information clear about which A-level subjects tend to lead to certain admissions, so that students can avoid "poor choices".
It also wants secondary schools to publish what university places have been offered to previous students and to make transparent what subjects the successful applicants had studied in school.
Professor Ebdon is vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the university think-tank Million+.
Commentators have made sure to highlight that his university does not offer 'traditional degrees' in maths, history, physics or chemistry, but does offer them in for example beauty therapy and football studies.
Critical MPs are likely to lobby the Prime Minister to scrap Offa in the next election manifesto.