The chemist behind fair access

As admission for disadvantaged students to university continues to dominate debate in higher education, Imperial magazine catches up with alumnus Professor Les Ebdon, who became Director of Fair Access to Higher Education in February 2012.

Illustration Les EbdonAs soon as Les Ebdon was proposed as a candidate to lead the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) in 2011, journalists, MPs and other people involved in education policy started to ask about his own experience of going to university. OFFA’s mission is to ensure that English universities and colleges charging higher tuition fees also work to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds. So, what kind of student had Ebdon been, back in the 1960s?

He grew up on a corporation estate, attended Hemel Hempstead Grammar School and was the first of his family even to think of going to university. The attitude among his peers was that it was “not for the likes of us”. Yet he aimed high and applied to Imperial.

This experience fits the role perfectly, although Ebdon has now told the story so many times that it hasworn smooth. Speaking a year and a half in to his mandate, in the spartan office he uses when in London rather than at OFFA’s Bristol headquarters, he goes through it again with good grace, but not much enthusiasm. He becomes more animated when the conversation turns to chemistry, the reason he wanted to go to university in the first place. “I think I chose chemistry because I liked explosions and colour changes,” he recalls. “In chemistry you can see what’s happening, in physics you can’t.”

Crucially, his school did more than just put ona show with science. “I had an excellent grounding in practical chemistry before I went to Imperial,” he says. “I don’t know if all grammar schools were like that, but it was a marvellous opportunity to have that quality of chemical training.”

He chose Imperial for practical and academic reasons. “I grew up far enough outside London that I couldn’t be expected to live at home, but not so far out that I couldn’t get home for the weekend. That seemed to be important. And Imperial had an outstanding reputation.”

He already had a strong idea of where a degree would take him. “I thought I would go into industry as a chemist,” he says. “That was my expectation throughoutmy undergraduate period.” When the time came to specialise, he chose analytical chemistry. “I discovered atomic spectroscopy and inductively coupled plasmas, and that was really exciting to me.”

It is not, he agrees, the most glamorous area of chemistry. “At Imperial at that time you had Nobel Prize winners in organic chemistry in Sir Derek Barton in 1969, and in inorganic chemistry in Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson in 1973. Analytical chemistry was a bit of a poor relation, but actually that suited me. I work best when there is something to prove.”

The choice also played to his strengths in practical chemistry and a certain feeling about the future. “I have a strong strategic sense and I realised that analytical chemistry was going to come up very quickly. And so it has proved. I never regretted the decision.”

The questions he is now asked about the difference between his background and that of his contemporaries at Imperial did occupy his mind when he first arrived on the campus. The student body in the 1960s seemed very different from the present situation where nearly 65% of first-degree undergraduates come from state schools.

“It was a much bigger jump than I thought it would be,” he says. “I went there expecting other people to be similar to me, only to discover that nearly all of them had been either to fee-paying schools or direct grant schools, which existed in those days. And nearly all of them had done a third year sixth and were much better equipped in mathematics than I was. I’d only done pure mathematics, and therefore I had to learn applied mathematics quite quickly.”

His background did have its compensations, though. “They were nearly all boys who had been educated in single-sex schools,” he says, before pausing to measure his words. “Not all of them were well-equipped with social skills.”

This initial feeling of difference was soon pushed aside by the excitement of living in London in the 1960s and the distractions of university life. He edited Felix, Imperial’s student newspaper, and chaired societies: “I got involved in things.” But in his present role, it does come back to him.

“I learned just how nervous and disoriented you can be when you go up to university, and how important it is for institutions to be welcoming and friendly, particularly to non-traditional students,” he says. “That would have made a lot of difference to me and to people from similar backgrounds. I remember one guy left at the end of the first week. It was too much of a culture shock for him.”

Towards the end of his undergraduate studies, Ebdon was still thinking of an industrial career. Then one company he was talking to mentioned that it also funded research studentships, and he started to think of staying in academia a little longer. After completing his BSc, in 1968, he remained at Imperial for a PhD on analytical atomic spectroscopy, which he completed in 1971.

By now he was committed to a research career, but he faced formidable obstacles if he was to do this as an academic. “Chemistry departments were trying to downsize in a world where you couldn’t make redundancies, so there were just no academic opportunities in the United Kingdom.”

So he looked overseas and found a place as a lecturer in chemistry at Makerere University in Uganda. As well as career considerations, he was also motivated by altruism. “I got involved in Third World and development issues when I was a student, and this seemed to be a marvellous opportunity to make a contribution.”

Initially the move seemed to pay off. He was able to recruit research students and lay the groundwork for a Masters programme in analytical chemistry. He also discovered that he liked teaching, a side of academic life of which he had limited experience up to that point.

But in 1972 Uganda’s leader, Idi Amin, expelled the country’s Asian community. “That radically changed the university, because many of the people who would have come on the Masters programme were Asian,” Ebdon recalls. “It changed the nature of the country, and of course brought the British and Ugandan governments into direct conflict.”

With family concerns weighing on top of the political uncertainties of remaining in Uganda, Ebdon started to look for a chance to return to England. The offer of a post as senior lecturer in analytical chemistry at Sheffield City Polytechnic was a godsend. As well as teaching, he immediately took steps to get his research career going again. “That’s an Imperial legacy,” he observes. “I’ve always had this drive to engage personally in research and an expectation that others would too.”

His background also helped open the way to new research collaborations. “Local industrialists knew some of the work that had been going on at Imperial and talked to me about the possibility of applying it, and that’s when I switched from being a pure analytical chemist – if you can ever be such a thing – to being a more applied one.”

He worked on coal and steel analyses, and the newer area of environmental chemistry. “In Sheffield there were some very interesting pollution scenarios that we began to look at,” he recalls. “That moved me into the environmental field and prepared me for the next step, which was going down to Plymouth, where there was no industry but there was plenty of environment.”

At Plymouth Polytechnic he became a professor and later took on administrative responsibilities, ultimately becoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor when it was reborn as a university in 1992. He stopped teaching, but was careful to continue his research work.

"It kept me grounded, and also meant that I didn’t have to tell people about the expectation to do research,” he says. “If the Deputy Vice-Chancellor was publishing dozens of papers a year and pulling in a few million pounds of external grants, why were they sitting around saying they couldn’t do anything?"

After a further decade of academic work, Ebdon decided that it was time for a decisive move into university management, becoming Vice-Chancellor at the University of Luton. “People were very surprised I took the job at Luton,” he recalls, “because it wasn’t in particularly good shape at the time. But I thought it was somewhere I could put something back.”

Under his management, the university’s turnover rose from £38 million to £134 million. Research income trebled and student numbers rose from under 10,000 to over 25,000. It also changed name, becoming the University of Bedfordshire in 2006 when it took over the Bedford campus of De Montfort University. “I think we are still regarded as a case study of how to rebrand a university,” Ebdon says.

He announced his retirement in 2011, at which point he was approached to become director of OFFA. Once again, this was a role in which Ebdon felt he could give something back to higher education. “I knew what access and wider participation was all about, and I was passionate about it because of my own personal experience.”

Before ministers confirmed his appointment, he had to endure a minor media storm when a House of Commons committee declined to endorse his can-didacy. While an uncomfortable initiation, this experience has not cast a shadow.

I think that’s the roleof a flagship universitylike imperial. It’s not justto recruit to imperial,but to raise the number of people going into science,engineering and medicine

“The difficulty for my opponents is that I’m doing the job with none of the disasters that they said would befall the nation,” he says. “And we are being successful. Not only are the numbers of applications from disadvantaged students at record levels, the numbers actually being admitted to the most selective universities are improving substantially.”

Any university or college in England that wants to charge tuition fees above a certain level has to submit an access agreement to OFFA, setting out its plans for attracting disadvantaged students. Typically this involves offering bursaries and conducting outreach work with schools. If OFFA thinks these plans are not ambitious enough, it can refuse to endorse the agreement and so prevent the institution charging higher fees.

This is one of two sanctions Ebdon can apply to institutions, the other being to recommend a fine if commitments are not honoured. Speaking to MPs he referred to it as “the nuclear option”, a phrase seized upon by his opponents in the press. Now he is more cautious. “Perhaps I should say there is only a monkey wrench, there are no small spanners,” he jokes. “But the biggest tool we have is persuasion and negotiation.”

So far OFFA has not had to use the monkey wrench. “It comes very close every year, there’s no question about that,” he says. “The longer I go without refusing one, the more people might say I’ve given in and am no longer standing by the principles I set out when I took the job. And that’s certainly not true.”

Instead, the higher education sector is very cooperative when it comes to widening access. “We have a generation of university vice-chancellors, many of them like me first-generation students from non-traditional backgrounds, and they get it,” he says. “The other group who get it are those who have had experience in the United States, where social mobility is taken for granted.”

While Ebdon cannot comment on the performance of individual institutions, he appreciates the position of his old college. “Imperial faces a real challenge, not only because it is highly selective but because it is highly selective in STEM subjects [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics],” he says. “We also know that medicine is one of the most difficult areas in which to broaden access.”

Yet he also sees London as fertile ground. “At one time schools in London were seen to be a bit of a disaster area, and now they are producing the highest rate of students from disadvantaged groups going on to university.”

This is why he is pleased to see Imperial reaching out. “Maybe not everybody who catches the excitement of STEM at an Imperial outreach event is going to go to Imperial, but hopefully they are going to study STEM somewhere,” he concludes. “I think that’s the role of a flagship university like Imperial. It’s not just to recruit to Imperial, but to raise the number of people going into science, engineering and medicine.”

Ian Mundell is a journalist specialising in higher education and research, who divides his time between London and Brussels. A lapsed biochemist, he now spends his time studying the metabolic pathways of the body politic. Like Les Ebdon, he was the first person in his family to go to university.

Words by Ian Mundell

Illustration by David Despau