Tories veto Cable's choice for university watchdog

MPs' committee divided over selection of opponent of fees regime

MPs have blocked the Government's choice for director of its university access watchdog, prompting claims of a political stitch-up which threatens to permanently undermine the body's independence.

Professor Les Ebdon, the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University, known for his opposition to the Government's fees regime, was the controversial choice put forward by the Universities minister David Willetts and the Business Secretary Vince Cable to head the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

Yesterday MPs on the Commons Select Committee for Business, Innovations and Skills rejected his appointment, saying they were "not convinced" he understood the "root causes" of obstacles to accessing universities. The decision was approved by four votes to two, with only Conservatives voting to block the appointment.

During an earlier hearing before the committee, Professor Ebdon made clear he would be prepared to use the "nuclear option" of imposing financial sanctions against universities which failed to reach access targets. Mr Cable said last night he stood by his recommendation and would respond to the committee report "shortly".

Last night the committee's chairman, Labour MP Adrian Bailey, distanced himself from the decision. He declared: "I would have supported Les Ebdon," adding: "The outcome of the report reflects the political divisions on this issue."

The committee's report said it was also "unsure" whether Professor Ebdon could "communicate persuasively and publicly" OFFA's position. Insiders said this was "insulting" to his 44 years of experience in higher education.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said the decision would "serve to undermine the independence of fair access regulation". "The allegation that Professor Ebdon... lacks adequate knowledge of access issues is so utterly bizarre and ill-founded that it is almost laughable," he added, saying the decision had "everything to do with an old boys' network of elite vice-chancellors thinking they can pick their own watchdog".

"How are students expected to have confidence in OFFA if the proper appointments procedure is undermined and the preferred candidate of ministers is nobbled because university heads feel he might actually use his powers to hold them to account?" he added.

Professor Ebdon was approved by Mr Cable and Mr Willetts after being interviewed by a panel including Tim Melville Ross, chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and the former Labour minister Alan Milburn, the Government's social mobility tsar.

Last night Professor Ebdon said in a statement: "I am still very interested in becoming the next Director of OFFA."