Vince Cable in stand off with MPs over Offa boss

Les Ebdon Les Ebdon is the head of the Million+ group, representing many new universities

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Business Secretary Vince Cable is standing by his candidate to head the university fair access watchdog, despite a rejection by MPs.

Les Ebdon had been put forward by ministers as their preference for director of the Office for Fair Access.

But MPs on a select committee have voted to try to block the appointment.

However ministers are not backing down - with a BIS spokeswoman saying: "Vince remains of the view that Les Ebdon is the right candidate."

Prof Ebdon has re-stated his continued interest in running Offa and says he is awaiting the decision of the secretary of state.

MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee voted against accepting the nomination of Prof Ebdon as the new head of Offa - and called for the recruitment process to begin again.

But Mr Cable, who with Universities Minister David Willetts, had endorsed the candidate, has not accepted their decision - and has the power to press ahead with the appointment.

A statement released on behalf of the business secretary says that he is sticking by his nomination and that he will "respond shortly".

'Political ambush'

The report from MPs expressed concerns about the preferred candidate's suitability, saying that they "struggled to get a clear picture of Professor Ebdon's strategy for the future of Offa".

Explaining their rejection, the MPs said they "were not convinced by Professor Ebdon's descriptions of the root causes of the obstacles to accessing universities".

A Labour MP on the committee, Paul Blomfield, said the vote against Prof Ebdon was "a political ambush which had more to do with coalition politics than concern with access to our universities".

MPs voting against Prof Ebdon's appointment were Conservatives.

The National Union of Students said the challenge from these MPs threatened to "dramatically undermine" Mr Cable, but it also "risked undermining the independence and integrity of fair access regulation".

Professor Ebdon is the vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the Million+ group of new universities.

He has been an outspoken defender of these universities, and a supporter of the cause of widening participation in higher education.

Prof Ebdon had told MPs at a pre-appointment hearing last week that if he became the director of fair access, he would be prepared to use financial sanctions against universities which failed to reach access targets.

Offa is responsible for overseeing the access agreements which universities in England have to sign if they want to charge more than £6,000 a year in tuition fees.

As part of the deal for charging higher fees, universities have to set out how they will encourage applications from students from poorer backgrounds - such as offering bursaries and running outreach projects.

This is a sensitive balancing act between protecting access for the disadvantaged while risking accusations of "social engineering" by manipulating the admissions process.

The new director of Offa will replace the current head, Sir Martin Harris, who is stepping down later this year.

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