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Gamekeeper and poacher (between them) at the Office for Students

There has been considerable noise made this week about the confirmation of James Wharton as the Chair of the Office for Students (OfS). Not since the failed attempt to install the controversial Toby Young to the OfS Board in January 2018 has there been such opposition. Despite support from the government, the hapless Young decided to
resign within days of his appointment. It looks less certain the same fate will befall Wharton, despite similar opposition. With the future of Higher Education, and fairness for all students, hanging in the balance, it is clear there must be full confidence in the leadership of the OfS. It appears the government falls well short of this ideal. Instead, they are intent on exerting even more direct control on universities through the OfS.

Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, immediately wrote to the Cabinet Secretary asking for an investigation. She noted that Wharton “has none of the statutory qualifications for this post, and both the higher education sector and the wider public will be deeply concerned that this is simply another example of cronyism” (The Guardian 10th February 2021). Strong words, but how could this happen?

Between them, how could Wharton have got past the selection process?

There is little doubt in the minds of most observers that chairing the OfS is a task that requires considerable experience in the workings of Higher Education, and education in general. It is therefore surprising Wharton could have got so far without being tripped up. Yet, the roots of the problem go back to the formation of the OfS before 2018.

Use of the term ‘between them’ in the title refers to the origin of why such lax criteria for the position came about. This term was inserted into the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 that led to the formation of the OfS in 2018. In appointing the Chair, and “at least seven and not more than twelve other members”, “The Secretary of State must, in appointing the chair and the ordinary members, have regard to the desirability of the OfS’s members (between them) having experience of…..”

The experience included,
  • Representing or promoting the interests of individual students, or students generally, on higher education courses provided by higher education providers
  • Providing higher education on behalf of an English higher education provider or being responsible for the provision of higher education by such a provider
  • Employing graduates of higher education courses provided by higher education providers covering a range of academic and practical disciplines
  • Promoting choice for consumers or other service users, and encouraging
  • A broad range of the different types of English higher education providers
It seems we now learn that the Chair could be appointed without any of these attributes and without breaching the act if a lack of experience could be diluted into the solution. This ‘sleight of hand’ illustrates why careful scrutiny of acts of parliament is so important.

How did Wharton get selected?

The position of OfS chair must be confirmed by the Education Select Committee and that interview took place last week on the 2nd of February 2021 (a transcript and video are at Pre-appointment hearing: Chair of the Office for Students - Committees - UK Parliament). However, it would appear the Education Committee was left with little leeway to change direction in a way that could be backed by the 2017 Act.

The Committee referred to Wharton as “the strongest candidate among a very competitive field”. It seems the Department for Education had ploughed on with their interpretation of the Act and used very wide criteria.

The call for a Chair, Office for Students (£59,000 per annum at 2 days per week) went out in August 2020. The selection panel were asked to consider these four criteria. None included experience in higher education. Instead, they were broad sweeps of, 1. Excellent strategic thinking capability, 2. A strong communicator, 3. Experience and a sound understanding of board management and commitment to the principles of public life, 4. Commitment to the principles of levelling up.

The only desirable criterion was a “Sound knowledge and understanding of the operation of regulatory activity, the strengths and limitations of regulators, and the implication of these matters to the higher education sector”.

How the panel reconciled Wharton’s sparse experience with the criteria remains somewhat obscure.

The role of the selection panel.

The five-member panel that sifted the candidates might yield a clue. In the chair was Susan Acland-Hood. She replaced Jonathan Slater who took the blame for  government mistakes and lost his job after the examinations crisis of the summer.

She was joined by broadcast executive and regulator, Patricia Hodgson. Although billed as independent and not political aligned, Hodgson's first job upon leaving university was working for the Conservative Research Department. She is a former Conservative member of Haringey Borough Council and former Chair of the right-wing think-tank Bow Group. Alongside her were Conservative MP, Eric Ollerenshaw, Conservative member of the House of Lords, Laura Wyld and following close behind, Nick Timothy, Non-Executive Director in the Department for Education, and former Joint Downing Street Chief of Staff. To many observers, it might appear the combination of loose criteria and the panel composition smoothed the path for Wharton to succeed.

Who is replacing Michael Barber at the OfS?

Sixty-five year old Michael Barber will soon step down as the Chair of the OfS at the end of March. Independent schooled and Oxford history graduate, Barber is steeped in education for most of his career. By the time he was the same age as Wharton, he had been a teacher in the UK and Zimbabwe before joining the education department of the National Union of Teachers. Then he was elected a Labour member of the London Borough of Hackney council and became chair of its education committee. Since then, he has accumulated an impressive portfolio of education and government experience across all levels of education and spanning many countries. Despite his Labour background, he was appointed to the OfS on clear merit and experience at the outset by a Conservative administration under the then education secretary, Justine Greening. That he appears not to fit in under the current administration should come as little surprise.

Barber is replaced by thirty-six year old James Wharton (AKA Baron Wharton of Yarm since September 2020) who has no experience in education provision or education policy. Even Barber at that age would have reached a considerably higher level of experience in the field. Although Wharton would not be expected to have accumulated the experience of his predecessor, his lack of relevant experience is astounding.

Independent school educated and Durham Law graduate, Wharton spent a brief period as a solicitor. He entered politics in 2010 and appears to be one of a new breed of career politicians. Indeed, there is really no comparison with Barber. As far as the government is concerned, his role as the campaign manager for Boris Johnson’s successful leadership bid seems to be the highlight.

Conflict of interest.

There have been many calls for Wharton to step down from his Conservative Party role in the House of Lords due to an obvious conflict of interest. A better solution would be for him to step down from the House of Lords and become truly ‘independent’. But it seems he plans to suit himself when he chooses on this matter. In answer to questions regarding a potential conflict of interest between his role as OfS chair and taking the Conservative whip in the Lords, Wharton had some astounding answers.

“I approach this with an open mind……if issues arise where there is conflict with my role at the OFS—if I am appointed—they will give me more latitude and understand that I may need to vote against or speak against some of the things that the party in government could bring forward…….I find, from my—obviously limited—experience so far, so I don’t think that is going to be a problem”. In other words, Wharton himself will decide, along with his Conservative masters, if there is a conflict of interest in an ad hoc manner. For any truly ‘independent’ body to accept this nonsense is equally astounding.

The Secretary of State for Education issues instructions.

The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, wasted little time in writing to Wharton with his instructions on Monday in ‘Guidance to the Office for Students (OfS) — Secretary of State’s strategic priorities’. The letter is somewhat confusing in its multiple demands and will require considerable experience to decipher. Wharton has his work cut out. His role appears to be command led and he is “to guide and provide leadership to the OfS and its Board in delivering the strategic outcomes outlined in this letter in the coming year and beyond”. The emphasis is on standards, quality and decreasing bureaucracy alongside making universities “promote equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome”. All this with no funding from the OfS on the table. Equal opportunity is to be promoted by pressing on with post qualification admissions, a tactic that is open to question. Ominously, reducing bureaucracy includes “data gathering, reporting and monitoring”.

Telling is the move to change the name of the “Teaching Grant to the Strategic Priorities Grant so that it reflects this role”. That is “nationally to support the economy”. No doubt, Wharton will simply end up as the compliant middleman in passing on those government priorities over time.

As an aside, after Roger Taylor stepped down as Chair of Ofqual in the wake of the examination crisis last year, it will be interesting to see how the government sets about replacing the interim chair in time.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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