Warning against ‘politicised appointments’ as key OfS roles open

New chair and ministers have scope to reshape regulator, as leadership and board roles potentially open up at politically fraught time

May 10, 2021
British Prime minister Boris Johnson launches a general campaign poster, 2019
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The Office for Students’ new chair and the Westminster government have a chance to reshape the English sector regulator as key leadership and board roles potentially open up this year – but they have been urged to avoid “politicised” appointments.

Lord Wharton of Yarm, a Conservative peer and former MP who chaired Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign, took over from Sir Michael Barber as chair of the powerful organisation at the start of April.

The government’s decision to appoint to the OfS a Tory peer and close ally of the prime minister – whose decision to retain the party whip in the Lords has generated controversy – is seen by some as potentially bringing the regulator more closely into line with ministerial direction.

And scope to make other key appointments that could reshape the organisation is opening up, with six of the 15 seats on the OfS board potentially coming up for grabs this year – at a time when the Johnson government is taking a critical position against universities on a number of issues, including free speech and “low-value” courses.

In 2018, former universities minister Jo Johnson made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to appoint to the OfS board Toby Young, an intensely partisan right-wing commentator.

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS chief executive and former Universities UK chief executive, will end her term of appointment on 31 December, an OfS spokesman confirmed.

The spokesman also confirmed that terms of office for five other members of the board end on that date: Gurpreet Dehal, Martha Longdon, Elizabeth Fagan, University of the West of England vice-chancellor Steve West and OfS director of fair access Chris Millward.

Appointments to the OfS are managed by the Department for Education and made formally by the secretary of state, currently Gavin Williamson. Terms can range between three and five years.

The chief executive and other board members can be reappointed. But if Lord Wharton and Mr Williamson want to shake up the OfS then they could make fresh appointments.

In such a scenario, the appointment of another figure from the university sector as OfS chief executive, like Ms Dandridge, seems unlikely. 

Lord Wharton’s appointment follows a trend for the Johnson government to appoint current or former Conservative representatives and staffers to public organisations.

Nick Hillman, the Higher Education Policy Institute director and former adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as a Conservative universities minister, said he would “urge strongly against politicising the Office for Students’ board”.

“It would be a breach of the century-old and successful arm’s-length relationship between universities and central policymakers,” Mr Hillman said.

“I am not saying people with political experience should be ruled out from membership. They often have a lot to contribute. But no new board members should be appointed solely because of their political opinions.”

David Green, the University of Worcester vice-chancellor, a critic of the OfS who has warned that it has already impinged on university autonomy, said that universities “need to be independent of the state if they are to flourish and serve students and society well”.

“I hope that the new chair of the OfS and the new directors to follow will be mindful of the precious public trust that attends their office and seek to strengthen universities and our higher education system, protecting institutional autonomy and encouraging excellence and inclusion in the interests of society,” he said.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com 

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