Top universities in England were warned yesterday they face having to slash their fees if they fail to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The warning came from Professor Les Ebdon, the Government’s choice to take over as head of the Office for Fair access – the university admissions watchdog.
Professor Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University and chairman of the million+ university think-tank, told MPs he was willing to use “the nuclear option” to force universities in the Russell Group – which represents leading research universities such as Oxford and Cambridge – if they fail to meet targets for recruitment.
He was being grilled by members of the Commons select committee on business, innovation and skills – who have the power to veto his appointment.
At present, all universities seeking to charge more than £6,000 a year in fees have to sign an agreement with OFFA committing them to making efforts to recruit more students from disadvantaged areas.
If they fail to meet agreed targets, they can be fined up to $500,000 or have their fees reduced to £6,000 a year.
Professor Ebdon told the MPs that the performance of Russell Group universities has been “patchy” – “The commitment (to widening participation) has been mixed”.
“There are some colleagues in the Russell Group universities who are just as passionate about widening participation as I am,” he said.
“I would be aiming to strengthen that opposition so that is the case throughout the whole university system.”
He added: “If they don’t do that, then there will be a point at which we will not be afraid to use sanctions.
“At present there are £500,000 fines – which are hardly sanctions at all but the other is to refuse to sign an access agreement.
“That’s a significant sanction – the nuclear sanction – and one has to use the nuclear sanction with subtlety.
“If you have a nuclear sanction, thought, you have to be prepared to use it and clearly I would be prepared if people didn’t meet their targets.”
Professor Ebdon said he would like to have had a wider range of sanctions at his disposal - “a tactical strike option would be welcome as well”
Figures showed the ratio between disadvantaged students had gone from one to six to one to seven in leading universities, he said, and it was important to reverse that trend.
He was questioned at length by MPs on his outspoken opposition to the new fees regime while the legislation on the new fees was being steered through the Commons by the Coalition Government. He is a supporter of a graduate tax.
He said he would make it clear it was not part of his role as head of OFFA to comment on that issue.
Brian Binley, Conservative MP for Northampton South, told him frankly he could not see any evidence of business acumen in his c.v.
“I would like evidence of your business record and quite frankly you haven’t got one,” he said. “That concerns me immensely.
“I see an educationalist which ha become an educational; bureaucrat but I don’t see anything that tells me you have a sense of the real world of business.”
Professor Ebdon said he was in charge of a budget worth £138 million a year as vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University.