Les Ebdon: The man who used the non-nuclear option to open up access to Britain's universities

Despite threatening sanctions to widen access to university, Les Ebdon achieved his goal by consensus, says Richard Garner

Les Ebdon, the head of the Office of Fair Access, is celebrating his first year in charge of opening up Britain’s top universities to working-class students.But if Conservative backbenchers had their way, he would never have got the job in the first place.

It was touch and go whether he would ever take up the role in 2012 despite being the preferred choice for the position. Eventually, David Cameron decided not to side with hawks on the Commons select committee who blocked his appointment, claiming they were “not convinced” he understood the causes of obstacles to disadvantaged people accessing universities.

Their opposition stemmed from a comment he had made during a committee hearing that he would be prepared to use the “nuclear option” of imposing financial sanctions against universities that failed to reach access targets for taking on disadvantaged students. But 12 months on, no nuclear weapon has been fired. Instead, there has been a steady increase in participation by working-class students.

Reflecting on the furore that greeted his original appointment, Professor Ebdon says: “I think things have certainly quietened down. The reality is we’ve managed to move people along on this agenda without needing to impose sanctions. All the furore didn’t necessarily do any harm.

“People are encouraged to know that Offa is there to make sure that whatever people’s financial background that shouldn’t be an impediment to going to university.”

He approached the job in the knowledge that the gap between the recruitment of disadvantaged students and their more affluent colleagues at leading universities “had tended to get slightly worse in recent years”.

Now the position is reversing. “The latest figures from Ucas (the universities and colleges admissions service) from 2013-14 show we are having an impact,” he says. “Students from disadvantaged areas are now more likely than ever to go to university.”

In 2004, students from better-off neighbourhoods were 4.3 times more likely than those from disadvantaged areas to seek a university place – but now that figure is down to 2.7. When it comes to more selective universities, the figure used to be that the students from better-off families were six times more likely to seek a place. That, too, has reduced to 4.3.

He would be the first to admit, though, that the job has not been done yet – and believes the key task ahead is to help universities to target their resources more effectively.

The evidence from the early years of promoting wider access showed that scholarships and bursaries make little difference to a student when they were deciding where to go. Outreach work was the key – sending student role models into disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

“There has been quite a significant increase [in outreach work],” he said. “People are getting that message.”

The other worry is whether – once you have the poorer students at university – you can keep them there. There are fears students from  disadvantaged areas are more likely to drop out of their courses. To  counter that, he is a keen advocate of a scheme adopted by Buckinghamshire New University whereby every student from a disadvantaged background has a “buddy” – a second-year student who looks after them.

So what does he plan as his next priority? “We have another challenge with the recruitment of part-time and mature students – and we also know that we have a challenge in terms of the education of young men. I recognise there has been a 40 per cent decline in the recruitment of part-time students in the last few years.”

The figures also show that around 56 per cent of the current admissions to universities are female and – once again – Professor Ebdon believes in the role of sending male “ambassadors” into schools to persuade more pupils that the university life is for them. He is particularly keen on efforts made in some areas to convince primary school children of the value of going to university.

The most controversial moment of his first year involved a run-in with independent schools after he suggested that there is a middle-class bias in education – because students from more affluent backgrounds were less costly to educate. He was quoted as saying: “If you really want to maximise the income of your university, then you take kids from a middle-class background whose parents can ensure they don’t fall into financial difficulty.” The furious reaction to his comments is unlikely to deter Professor Ebdon from pursuing his goal – a goal which stems from the fact that he himself was brought up amongst the very working-class students he is now trying to persuade to go to university.

A day in the life: Inspiring the youth

“I’m not a morning person so I get things ready for the day the night before. Today, I’m on an early train to a university in the Midlands to see their work with local schools.

“For many of the teenagers I meet, today is their first visit to a university campus. There are scores, perhaps hundreds, of bright young people here, being enthused and inspired by dedicated and knowledgeable staff. Lots of these young people will go on to university, and, for many of them, today will have acted as the spark of encouragement they needed.

“It’s a rush back to the station to catch my train. Then an evening of answering all the emails I have received during the day.”

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