Former Conservative MP picked as next Office for Students chair

Lord Wharton set to succeed Sir Michael Barber at helm of English sector regulator

December 18, 2020
James Wharton

A former Conservative MP who served as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager has been named as the preferred candidate to be chair of England’s higher education regulator.

Lord Wharton of Yarm, who as James Wharton was a junior minister under David Cameron and Theresa May, is set to succeed Sir Michael Barber at the top of the Office for Students (OfS).

Lord Wharton, who served as MP for Stockton South from 2010 until he lost his seat in 2017, was selected by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, and will now go on to attend a pre-appointment hearing before the Education Select Committee.

If he is confirmed in the role, he will chair the OfS board, working with ministers and the regulator’s chief executive, Nicola Dandridge. The two-day-a-week role comes with a salary of £59,000.

A graduate of Durham University and a former solicitor, Lord Wharton served as a parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development and for local growth and the Northern Powerhouse.

After managing Mr Johnson’s successful campaign for the Tory leadership in 2019, he was awarded a life peerage in September this year.

He was selected for the OfS post at the end of an appointment process that was the subject of some controversy when it emerged that the interview panel included three Conservatives and a former Tory parliamentary candidate.

Times Higher Education reported that Nick Timothy, who was an adviser to Ms May and is now a non-executive director at the Department for Education, sat on the panel alongside former Conservative MP Eric Ollerenshaw, Conservative peer Baroness Wyld and Dame Patricia Hodgson, the former Ofcom chairman and former Conservative parliamentary candidate, whose position as a former principal of Newnham College, Cambridge made her the sole panel member with higher education leadership experience.

The OfS is a non-departmental body intended to operate at arm’s length from government, which has extensive powers over universities. Sir Michael 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.

Mr Williamson said that Lord Wharton would “bring strategic direction” to the OfS role.

“He will play a vital part in ensuring students from all backgrounds are at the heart of the higher education system, receiving a high-quality education and value for money from our universities,” Mr Williamson said.

Following the pre-appointment hearing, the Education Select Committee will publish recommendations which Mr Williamson will consider before finalising the appointment.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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