New OfS chair pick shows Johnson’s ‘political control freakery’

Lord Wharton of Yarm urged to get up to speed with challenges as ‘quickly as possible’ if appointment confirmed

December 29, 2020
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) gestures as he talks to members of a local cycling club at the Canal Side Heritage Centre in Beeston, central England, on July 28, 2020
Source: Getty

The preferred choice for the next chair of England’s university regulator illustrates “the political control freakery” of Boris Johnson’s government but is “hardly a surprise” given the make-up of the panel that helped select him.

That was among the reactions after former Conservative MP Lord Wharton of Yarm, who was campaign manager for the prime minister’s successful bid for the Tory leadership, was announced as the preferred choice for taking over as chair of the Office for Students.

His selection, which awaits confirmation from education secretary Gavin Williamson after an appearance before the Education Select Committee, drew raised eyebrows from many in the sector given his political background and lack of previous higher education experience.

However, Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said that “when we saw the make-up of the panel" – which as reported by Times Higher Education in September included three Conservatives and a former Tory parliamentary candidate – “it is hardly a surprise”.

He said he also understood why “any government would want someone sympathetic to their values and especially when planning a big reform agenda”.

But Professor Westwood added that the choice to succeed Sir Michael Barber when he steps down as chair of the OfS at the end of March also demonstrated “how the prime minister and government does politics”.

“This also betrays a sort of political control freakery – as well as a lack of trust in people outside a small circle of political colleagues. This point has been observed before,” he added, such as in the appointment of former Vote Leave campaigners such as Dominic Cummings to the heart of government.

Professor Westwood also noted that another former Conservative MP, Sir Simon Burns, had been appointed as the advisory board chair for the restructuring regime that will administer any emergency loans for universities that get into major financial problems because of the pandemic.

Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology at the University of Cambridge and an expert on higher education governance, said that Lord Wharton was a “Boris crony” selection that might also reflect his experience as a former minister for the “Northern Powerhouse”.

“It is hard to spot any hopes here of an OfS chair who will protect higher education from political interference,” she added. “The OfS already gives its energies mostly to matters pretty remote from teaching and research. He is not going to restore those priorities.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the choice was a “very different sort of appointment to those of days gone by” but he looked forward to helping Lord Wharton get up to speed with the issues.

“I would urge him to speak to as many staff, students and governors as he can, as quickly as possible, to get a sense of the big challenges ahead,” he said.

Asked on Twitter about the choice of Lord Wharton, Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments who oversees the selection process for such roles, said that it was a matter for Mr Williamson.

However, he added that he had “already publicly raised questions about the composition of the [assessment] panel and, as a normal part of my role, will look at the conduct of the competition” for the post under the code governing such appointments.

In its statement announcing Lord Wharton’s selection, the Department for Education said that the choice had followed “a rigorous assessment process conducted in accordance with the Governance Code on Public Appointments”.

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