Do you remember these words, from December 2010?:
“I have a nuclear option; it’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons… If they push me toofar then I can walk out and bring the Government down and they know that.”
Now look at this answer to a Select Committee on 2 February 2012:
“The task is to use the nuclear option with subtlety and that will be my role. If you say you never will touch the nuclear button then you don’t have a nuclear button so clearly I would be prepared to…”
You might think that these two speakers have much in common. Indeed the latter seems – whether consciously or not – to be echoing the former. No prizes for guessing that the speakers are – in this order – Business Secretary Vince Cable and his new protégé, the Vice Chancellor of Bedfordshire University, Professor Les Ebdon.
We learnt yesterday that, contrary to weekend news reports, the Prime Minister feels unable to prevent Mr Cable's choice of Professor Ebdon as the new head of the Office of Fair Access (OFFA). This is despite the recommendation of the Business Select Committee that Mr Ebdon should not be appointed. If Mr Ebdon gets the job, universities failing to comply with OFFA's social mobility targets will, as he made clear to the Select Committee on 2 February, risk being fined or having their funding withdrawn. This is the so-called “nuclear option.”
Mr Cable and his choice of university tsar have more in common than a taste for explosive hyperbole. Both appear to be convinced that the reason why Britain's most academic universities do not take as many students from poor backgrounds as from middle class homes is the inability of universities to reach out to clever students from failing schools. Neither seemed to have grasped that the purpose of university selection committees is to maintain the highest possible standards at their institutions by selecting the students most likely to benefit from the education on offer. And in their desire to bring financial pressure to bear on universities who fail to advance social mobility, Mr Cable and Mr Ebdon are ignoring the single most important reason why Britain's most academically demanding universities do not have an intake representative of all social classes: the failure of our comprehensive school system to keep pace with the academic standards of grammar schools and fee-paying schools.
It was Mr Ebdon's apparent unwillingness to recognise this failure that caused the Select Commitee to recommend he should not be put in charge of OFFA. The Committee wants a university access tsar who will bring pressure to bear on schools to improve their standards, rather than threaten universities with loss of funding. As Committe member Nadhim Zahawi puts it, university policy needs to focus on levelling up, not levelling down.
Last year Oxford University spent more than £8million on “outreach”, including summer schools and bursaries. This year they expect to spend more than £11million, in their attempt to satisfy OFFA's objectives. At the same time they are trying to raise an extra £90million from donors to make up for this year's shortfall in government funding. It may not be long before one of our leading universities concludes that it would be better able to meet its academic objectives by opting out of government control and relying instead on endowments and private fund raising. Indeed, Mr Ebdon's use of a “nuclear option” will have one of two possible consequences: to undermine the world-leading academic and research credentials of Britain's elite universities, or to force them to become independent. Some Conservatives might regard the latter as a good result. But ministers should be aware that this route, whilst potentially attractive in the longer term, will tend to favour fee paying overseas students at the expense of access by British-educated children.
It is also sign of his prejudice against Britain's best universities that Mr Ebdon seems to think they are not trying hard enough to recruit students from poorer backgrounds. Selection panels are already bending over backwards to ensure that they choose the brightest, rather than merely the best-educated, school leavers. It is not in their interests, nor does it accord with their prevailing political outlook, to fill their halls with well-off, spoon-fed children who have coasted through independent schools yet lack the capacity for intellectual enquiry. What they cannot do, however, is take on students whose schooling has fallen so far short of entry requirements that they would be unable to cope with the degree course offered. Nor should they refrain, as Mr Ebdon seems to think, from interviewing prospective students in ancient surroundings. It is an extraordinarily patronising assumption. What could be more inspiring to a student who has been schooled in soulless modern classrooms than to get inside the kind of historic buildings they have seen on film sets? And how mean-spirited to try to rob young people of that experience.
If the Prime Minister decides to disregard the view of Parliament, expressed through the Select Committee, and to approve Mr Ebdon's appointment, it will be assumed that he lacks the appetite for a fight with his Business Secretary. But let us hope that Mr Cameron has his own nuclear option, and that he will later this year remove from the Business Department the responsibility for universities and return it to its proper place, within the Department of Education. OFFA's remit could then be pruned back to simply overseeing the distribution of bursaries among poorer students who might be deterred on reasons of cost from applying to expensive universities. With Michael Gove in charge of university policy, we shall then have the prospect of a consistent approach to education and social mobility, which ensures that children are schooled to the level required by our great universities, rather than the other way around.