Michael Barber selected to promote ‘choice and competition’ at OfS

John Morgan looks at appointment of former McKinsey, Pearson and government education adviser

February 7, 2017
Sir Michael Barber

“The traditional multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day. The traditional university is being unbundled.”

So said Sir Michael Barber, announced today by the government as preferred candidate to be first chair of the new Office for Students, in a 2013 report titled An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead. The report, for the IPPR thinktank, predicted that Moocs would be a transformative, disruptive force for universities.

Now the man who wrote those words has been chosen as chair of English higher education's new, hugely powerful regulator, as it bids to enforce a market approach. Barber’s background – at McKinsey, at Pearson, as a member of the Browne review, as head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit under Tony Blair – in many ways makes him a natural choice for an organisation that will be about promoting “choice and competition”.

But, with legislation to create the OfS still facing strong opposition in the House of Lords, his appointment might prove to be a lightning rod for peers worried by further marketisation.

Under the changes planned in the Higher Education and Research Bill, the OfS will take over the process for allowing private providers entry to the sector (the Privy Council will be stripped of control over university title and degree awarding powers), so this appointment really matters in terms of the regime for new providers.

Jo Johnson slightly jumped the gun in his tweet about Barber.

As the Department for Education press release makes clear, his appointment is subject to a pre-scrutiny hearing by MPs on the Education Committee

“The challenge will be to combine the traditions that make our universities great with the innovation that the decades ahead demand,” says Barber in the press release.

Universities UK's deputy chief executive welcomed the appointment.

He also earns backing in the press release from former Labour business secretary Lord Mandelson, along with University of Exeter vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith.

In 2013, Smith wrote a long critique of An Avalanche is Coming, saying it “understates the scale of the challenges that universities have faced in the past, challenges that they have successfully overcome and that, in many cases, have strengthened the university as an institution”.

Barber may be perceived by some universities as a hostile force out to get them, given his past statements.

A 2011 Guardian profile described Barber as “New Labour's mad professor and master of the flow chart, the man responsible for the literacy and numeracy strategies of the first term and, later, when he worked for Tony Blair as head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, for top-down targets across the public sector”.

Not everyone was impressed by the appointment.

An Avalanche is Coming was enthusiastic about creating a more market-led approach in higher education. “New entrants are effectively barred from entry. A new university ranking is required,” it said, in words that align with Johnson’s agenda in the bill and in the teaching excellence framework that will judge universities on proxies for teaching quality.

And in appointing a member of the Browne review to the OfS, Johnson has opted for someone who firmly believes in the need for a new, market-style regulator.

Along with removing the cap on tuition fees, the Browne review recommended merging Hefce, QAA, Offa and the OIA into a single Higher Education Council that would include “competition” among its responsibilities.

Barber’s background in public sector reform and the “choice” agenda in public services, including education, clearly appealed to Johnson as he tries to set the agenda for the OfS – and send out a signal about that agenda.

So it’s an appointment that has a philosophical and ideological rationale, given what Johnson expects from the OfS.

But as the OfS chair comes from outside higher education, universities will be keen that the chief executive, when selected, has a deeper experience of the sector that includes running a university or a major higher education organisation.

And Barber’s appointment may provide ammunition for the bill’s critics in the Lords, when the final battle over the legislation starts next month.

John Morgan is deputy news editor of Times Higher Education.

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