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Office for Students: Meet the new boss……….

The idea that the new boss is always the same as the old boss is a well-worn adage that seems to apply most times. But, in the case of the Office for Students this week, there was an exception. Career politician, James Wharton took over the direction of the Office for Students (OfS) as its chair. Eager to please his political masters, his first move was to be interviewed by the Telegraph where he could lay out his priorities. During the biggest crisis for universities and students in decades, he cites his main priority as "Free speech”. To further this aim, it is reported that he threatens to use his new powers, which include the ability to fine and deregister institutions as well as ban degree courses from recruiting new students, if universities and linked clubs fail to uphold speech rights. His next priority is reported as urging universities to do more to boost their intake of white working-class boys. This is falling well short of dealing with the challenges ahead and he will have to up his game considerably if he wants to convince anyone he is a serious leader.

The new Chair of the Office for Students, James Wharton (aka Baron Wharton of Yarm since September 2020) was appointed on the 8th of February 2021 and formally started with the OfS on 1st April 2021. His first public act was yesterday. This was an interview reported in the Telegraph prior to any communication via the OfS itself (Daily Telegraph 9th April 2021 ‘New student watchdog chief pledges to end cancel culture’)

The fact that he chose the Telegraph indicates where his tribal allegiances lie. But shocking was the report of his top priority. This is stopping the cancel culture and "no platform" in universities that is "deeply unhealthy" and has a "chill effect" on free speech. This was widely reported by the usual suspects (e.g. Daily Mail 9th April 2021) and sets the tone for how government views universities.

Ominous threats.

The OfS is a ‘non-departmental public body’ that demands a degree of independence from government ministers. However, in practice it seems the government controls the track and the route taken. It therefore comes as a surprise that the chair of such a body thinks it appropriate to issue public threats to institutions that fail to uphold his idea of ‘free speech’. He is reported as threatening to ‘use his new powers, which include the ability to fine and deregister institutions as well as ban degree courses from recruiting new students, if universities and linked clubs fail to uphold speech rights’. This seems to imply that the autonomy of a university in providing courses could be stopped if students try to ‘no-platform’ an external speaker. Wharton should think this through. A scenario, whereby students in one department try to exercise their right to protest at a controversial speaker, could be that they find their degree course is then banned. The resulting atmosphere would have a major chilling effect on freedom of expression and free speech. But then, maybe that is the aim.

White working-class boys.

Wharton’s other priority was less reported elsewhere but must be considered. He encourages universities to do more to boost their intake of white working-class boys with reference to 13 per cent of white boys who are eligible for free school meals go on to take up a place at university, compared with 67 per cent of Chinese boys on free school meals. He is quoted "I am taking the two extremes, but there is clearly a problem there."

It seems the universities are to do more in driving this goal and the government seems to be settling down in the back seat to drive from there. It is a narrow and naïve view that is hopeless in its apparent ‘optimism’ with a somewhat ambiguous aim of, "We need to send a clear message that higher education is and always should be for people who can benefit from it." and "The younger we are able to start being clear about spreading that message, the better."

Priorities lie elsewhere.

The priorities seem to be somewhat detached from the reality of a major crisis caused by COVID-19. The impact on students and universities has been extensive and will take years to recover. The full impact has yet to play out and addressing this should be top of any priority list. The challenge for the OfS is to provide stability and leadership in recovering to a better position over the coming year. Finances for students and universities are stretched. Universities have lost international students while students are paying for accommodation and facilities they cannot use. Yet a high quality of education has to be maintained during a chaotic lockdown. This is balanced by universities trying to cope with a breakdown in student hardship and mental health as inequalities in access to resources have been accentuated further. Wharton should consider the current advice from the OfS from 14 January 2021 (‘Regulation during the current phase of the Coronavirus (COVID-19)’ that sets out the need for “safety nets for individual students”. Ensuring this is the case should be a very high priority. The action points set out by his predecessor on the 1st of March 2021 (’Gravity assist: propelling higher education towards a brighter future’) might provide a better vantage point to start from. Threats to close courses are not the right way to go about it.

Background to the appointment.

The position of Chair of the OfS was advertised last August as a 2 days per week position for £59,000 per annum. However, the subsequent appointment of James Wharton came as a major surprise, bearing in mind the criteria and complexity of the job. The result was considerable disquiet and opposition to his appointment on the grounds that he had little experience and could not be independent if he retained the conservative whip in the House of Lords. The opposition noise reached such a level that Department of Education (DfE) felt it had to issue a stern ‘Statement on misleading claims about the appointment of Lord Wharton as chair of the Office for Students’ on 10th February 2021 in an attempt to deflect the criticism. This was also a warning with “Lord Wharton’s appointment was made by Ministers in line with the Governance Code on Public Appointments and regulated by the Independent Commissioner for Public Appointments. To suggest otherwise is a wilful distortion of the fact”.

Indeed, the DfE is correct on the code and the ‘rules’ that were adhered to. However, looking further back at the origin of the OfS provides a clue to why it could happen. The cause of such a perverse appointment lies deep in the act that set up the OfS initially. TEFS covered this on 12th February 2021 in ‘Gamekeeper and poacher (between them) at the Office for Students’. His predecessor, Michael Barber, possessed a depth of experience in education that sustained him in guiding the formation of the OfS that arose in 2018 from the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. It set out the criteria for OfS board members and its chair including experience of “A broad range of the different types of English higher education providers”. The twist that allowed Wharton a foot in the door lay in the precise wording that states, “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…..”. By using the let out ‘between them’, a lack of experience could be diluted into the solution without breaching the act.

As a and relatively inexperienced chair, some might see Wharton as a young ‘first officer’ who is a staunch believer in his master’s doctrine and eager to report back any infractions. In issuing treats, we might be forgiven for suspecting he could be there simply to ensure the leaders of the OfS and the rest of the crew adhere to the doctrine.

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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