MPs back Conservative peer to lead English sector regulator

Education Select Committee endorses appointment of Lord Wharton as Office for Students chair

February 5, 2021
Chair of Office for Students James Wharton, Lord Wharton of Yarm

MPs on the Education Select Committee have endorsed the appointment of a Conservative peer as the next chair of England’s higher education regulator.

The endorsement clears the way for the confirmation of Lord Wharton of Yarm, a former MP who led Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign, as chair of the Office for Students.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson – who had picked Lord Wharton as his preferred candidate – was set to finalise the appointment following the publication of the committee’s report on 5 February.

Robert Halfon, the committee’s chair, said that Lord Wharton would have “a vital role to play in standing up for the rights of students and ensuring opportunities for all”.

“I congratulate Lord Wharton on his appointment. I look forward to seeing the new chair use his position to genuinely open doors for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensure that access and participation funding delivers real change, use his independent voice to rocket-boost degree apprenticeships and guarantee everyone has access to high quality skills that benefit both themselves and employers,” Mr Halfon said.

In an appearance before the committee on 2 February, Lord Wharton said that he planned to retain the Conservative party whip, but pledged to uphold the Office for Students’ independence from the government.

He and five other candidates had been interviewed for the role by a panel that included three Conservatives and a former Tory parliamentary candidate. These were Nick Timothy, who advised Theresa May as prime minister and is now a non-executive director at the Department for Education; 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 a former Conservative parliamentary candidate. The final member of the interview panel was Susan Acland-Hood, the permanent secretary of the Department for Education.

In correspondence with Mr Halfon published as part of the committee’s report, Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, says that he had expressed concern about the interview panel’s “overall balance in terms of experience and political activity”.

However, Mr Riddell adds that he had read a copy of the interview panel’s report and was “satisfied that the panel questioned the candidates at interview consistently and with reference to the published criteria for the role”.

Lord Wharton will succeed Sir Michael Barber as OfS chair in March. He was MP for Stockton South from 2010 until he lost his seat in 2017, and served as a junior minister under David Cameron and Theresa May.

The two-days-a-week post comes with an annual salary of £59,000, on a four-year term.

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Reader's comments (1)

So if it had been a labour peer? An SNP peer? One appointed by Blair or Starmer, what then? I am no tory apologist by a long chalk but it seems like double standards to me...