Ex-No 10 adviser and ‘Ponzi’ HE critic to help pick OfS chair

Former Theresa May adviser Nick Timothy to interview hopefuls to head regulator, alongside Tory peer, former Tory MP and ex-Tory candidate

September 2, 2020

The UK government has named three Conservatives and a former Tory parliamentary candidate to help choose the next chair of the English sector regulator, including a former prime ministerial adviser who called for a reversal of higher education expansion and described the system as a “Ponzi scheme”.

Nick Timothy, who advised Theresa May as prime minister and is now a non-executive director at the Department for Education, is one of four panel members named so far to interview candidates to be the next Office for Students chair – alongside a Conservative peer, a former Conservative MP and a former Conservative candidate.

The nature of the interview panel was likely to raise concerns among universities about politicisation of the appointments process for the OfS, a non-departmental public body intended to operate at arm’s length from government, which has extensive powers over universities.

The government is seeking a replacement for Sir Michael Barber, the current OfS chair, who said earlier this year that he would not seek a second term and would leave in March 2021. The government is said by some in the sector to be preparing to significantly toughen the OfS’ already far-reaching powers via legislation, as it seeks to achieve the goal set out in the Conservative manifesto of cracking down on “low-value” courses in universities.

The other members of the panel are former Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw; Conservative peer Baroness Wyld, a former head of the prime minister’s appointments unit; and, listed as an independent panel member, Dame Patricia Hodgson, the former Ofcom chairman and former Conservative parliamentary candidate, whose position as a former principal of Newnham College, Cambridge makes her the sole panel member with higher education leadership experience.

The panel is detailed in a government advertisement inviting applications for the post of OfS chair, a two-day-a-week role with a salary of £59,000.

After his exit from government following the Conservatives’ loss of their majority at the 2017 election, Mr Timothy was the author that year of Daily Telegraph column attacking higher education expansion, in which he described having his hair cut by a barber who was a Southampton Solent University football studies graduate. This showed that young people “who choose the wrong institutions and courses will see little benefit” from higher education, wrote Mr Timothy, who argued that the expansion of higher education had not brought the right economic benefits.

He criticised the tuition fees system and the amount of debt added to the government’s books.

“We have created an unsustainable and ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme, and young people know it,” wrote Mr Timothy.

He called for “radical change in tertiary education”, for the expansion of technical education and for ministers to “restrict who is allowed to study for a degree”.

Mr Timothy is thought to have been a key influence behind the creation of the Augar review by Ms May, which recommended the lowering of the fee cap from £9,250 to £7,500 and also floated the idea of limiting access to students loans for university courses by setting a grade tariff threshold.

The government is yet to offer its response to the Augar review, but is expected to do so at the time of the autumn spending review.

Mr Timothy is strongly influenced in his opposition to higher education expansion by Baroness Wolf, the Augar review panel member and King’s College London professor who is now working part-time as skills and workforce adviser in the Number 10 Policy Unit.

At the time Mr Timothy wrote his Daily Telegraph article, the government’s Longitudinal Education Outcomes data showed that the two subject groupings across which Southampton Solent’s football studies programme was split both had graduate earnings levels comfortably above the median salary for young workers.

The position of chair of the interview panel is marked as “TBC” in the advertisement, with “permanent secretary” and “departmental official” written underneath. Boris Johnson recently dismissed Jonathan Slater, the Department for Education’s former permanent secretary, in the wake of the exam results crisis, with Susan Acland-Hood replacing him.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “The chair of the OfS is a public appointment, made by ministers in line with a Governance Code. The appointment is regulated by the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, who plays a vital role in assuring that public appointments are made openly and fairly.”  

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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