Market figure tipped to 'shake' English sector at OfS

Interviews in progress for Office for Students chief executive, with v-cs among those shortlisted

March 16, 2017
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Vice-chancellors are said to have made the shortlist for the chief executive post at England’s powerful new higher education regulator, but the government is tipped to choose a candidate from a market background to give the sector a “shaking”.

A Department for Education spokesman said that interviews are “currently in progress” for the chief executive post at the Office for Students, the regulator set to be created by the Higher Education and Research Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament.

While a number of vice-chancellors are thought to have been shortlisted, figures from regulatory, market and government backgrounds are also said to have made the list.

Mary Curnock Cook, who stands down as Ucas chief executive at the end of April, is viewed by some as a strong candidate if she were to be under consideration.

The OfS chair’s post has already gone to Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser at Pearson, formerly a senior adviser on education and head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in Tony Blair’s government.

The government has explicitly stated that the OfS will be a market regulator, responsible for driving competition. It will also be responsible for admitting new private providers to the sector, a key aim for Jo Johnson, the universities minister.

This means that the government will choose a candidate from a market background, seeing Sir Michael as filling the role of senior figure with balancing education experience, some believe.

While the prospect of the OfS being established under senior leadership with no experience of running a university may alarm the sector, given the extent of the regulator’s powers, it may not trouble the government.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies and a recently appointed board member at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (which will be subsumed within the OfS), said: “If the OfS is to start off with the right culture and style as first and foremost a protector of, and enhancer of, the student-consumer interest, then the CEO has to be from a regulatory background and/or another market-based activity beyond the HE sector.

“Translating a v-c across will undermine confidence that the OfS is about the punters [students] rather than the vested interests and convenience of the complacent producers – who are in need of a considerable shaking.” 

The £200,000 salary on offer for the OfS chief executive post may make it unattractive to vice-chancellors of larger universities, who are typically paid significantly more.

Sir Michael’s background at Pearson has raised eyebrows for some in higher education, given that Pearson is an influential presence in the sector. The company – the world’s largest education firm – is a provider itself via Pearson College, awards Higher National qualifications used in higher education and awards BTECs, alternatives to A levels used by growing numbers of entrants to higher education.

Pearson’s HN qualifications were used by for-profit colleges that mounted explosive growth in their numbers of students with public loan funding in the last wave of private provider expansion. The Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office criticised the government for failing to control spending.

Sir Michael was asked about his Pearson role during the parliamentary Education Committee’s hearing on his appointment. He said he would leave that post on 31 March, before starting his OfS role.

“I will leave Pearson cleanly before so I don’t think there will be any conflict of interest,” he added.

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