David Cameron faces row over university post


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Indy Politics

David Cameron was today facing an angry backlash from Tory MPs after apparently conceding defeat to Business Secretary Vince Cable over the appointment of a new "universities tsar".

Downing Street has indicated it would not block Mr Cable's choice of Professor Les Ebdon to head the Office for Fair Access (Offa), even though he was opposed by MPs on the Commons Business, Innovations and Skills Committee.

However, Tories on the committee have launched a fresh onslaught - accusing him of having a "jaundiced" view of the role of universities and of seeking to "level down standards".

As the director general of Offa, Prof Ebdon will be responsible for ensuring the introduction of higher tuition fees do not deter students from low income backgrounds from going to university.

His appointment is said to have been opposed by Education Secretary Michael Gove who is reported to believe that he was more interested in social engineering than promoting excellence inuniversities.

That view was echoed by Conservatives on the committee which last week called on the Government to re-open the selection process following a pre-appointment hearing with Prof Ebdon.

One Tory, Nadhim Zahawi, said it would set a "bad precedent" for the Government to overturn the committee's recommendation, even though it was only advisory.

He said that when he gave evidence, Prof Ebdon had been more concerned that universities should not interview candidates in "baronial halls" rather than the underlying issues concerning access to higher education.

"To me and my colleagues that message was a very dangerous one," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

"In the UK we are second probably only to America in terms of university quality. What I would hate to see is a head of Offa who would level down standards at universities for the sake of pursuing a strategy that is misguided and wrong instead of levelling upwards

"They ought to open up the application process. They will get some great candidates. It pays £130,000-a-year for a three-day week.

"I don't believe that the only person who is fit to do this job is a person called Les Ebdon who has such a jaundiced view of what universities need to do."