OfS chair pick will keep Tory whip but ‘uphold independence’

Lord Wharton says ‘top universities’ should have lighter-touch regulation in pre-appointment hearing

February 2, 2021
James Wharton

A Conservative peer chosen by the government to chair England’s higher education regulator plans to retain the party whip if confirmed in the post, but has pledged to uphold the organisation’s independence.

Lord Wharton of Yarm, a former Tory MP who led Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign, faced questions on how he would handle potential conflicts of interest with a role as Office for Students chair, in a pre-appointment hearing before MPs on the Education Select Committee on 2 February.

The choice of Lord Wharton – by a panel including three Conservatives and a former Tory candidate – to succeed Sir Michael Barber had already been described as showing Mr Johnson’s “political control freakery”.

Tory MP David Simmons asked Lord Wharton whether he was planning to retain the Conservative whip in the Lords and how he would deal with any potential conflicts of interest.

The peer replied that “in anticipation not just of the question but of the very real issue that sits behind it, I’ve had a discussion with the whips in the Lords already. What I’ve made clear, and they have agreed, is that on issues where there is conflict – if they arise – with my role at the OfS, if I’m appointed, they will give me more latitude and understand that I may need to vote against or speak against some of the things the party in government could bring forward.”

He said that he recognised the “crucial importance of the regulator being independent” and would “uphold that”.

Lord Wharton was also asked about his role on the advisory board of Policy Exchange, a right-wing thinktank, but said that he has not been involved in its education work and did not see “any conflict there”.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, recently billed himself as “tearing up” Tony Blair’s 1999 target – already achieved – for 50 per cent of young people in England to enter higher education.

Asked about that target, Lord Wharton said: “I do think the target itself is too arbitrary and blunt. But at the same time, I want to be very clear that I think we want as many people who could benefit from higher education as possible to feel that they can access it, to be able to access it.

“Part of the Office for Students’ role is to encourage and enable that, but also to ensure the quality is retained.”

He added: “I don’t support the target, but I do support the sentiment behind it, which is that everybody should have the opportunity if they have the aptitude.”

The peer also said he would emphasise “bespoke risk-based” regulation. He added: “Some of our top universities, the quality of the qualifications they are giving will, I think, not need to be subject to the same level of scrutiny as those universities where there are genuine questions about whether the degree they award is of questionable value, if that’s the case.”

On issues where he might challenge the government, Lord Wharton singled out post-qualification admissions, where he said he was in “broad support” of plans to switch to that system but had “concerns” on the loss of personal statements.

He also said that if in post, he would be asking questions about how the government’s latest batch of £50 million Covid hardship funding for students should be allocated, and about “whether that is sufficient”.

Asked by Tory MPs about free speech, he said that it was “a space where the regulator should be active”.

“If some of the media reports are to believed” – Lord Wharton said that he would look to speak with universities on the issue – “some mistakes have been made”, he added.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

“Some of our top universities, the quality of the qualifications they are giving will, I think, not need to be subject to the same level of scrutiny as those universities where there are genuine questions about whether the degree they award is of questionable value, if that’s the case.” Not sure I agree. It's obvious, for example, that many graduates of Oxford's PPE degree are appallingly bad at their jobs.
Perhaps I'm paranoid, but, in the context of the potential appointment of Dacre to OfCom, it looks like Tory attempts to control the whole agendum. Presumably there are cross-bench peers who would have considerably more expertise.

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