Two weeks ago on the 9th February there was an announcement that the Government had appointed James Wharton who is a Conservative Peer as the new Chair of The Office for Students which is supposed to be an Independent organisation and able to stand up against the Government on behalf of Students and the Higher Education sector. As this Guardian article states Mr Wharton “was appointed to head the independent regulator of higher education in England despite having no experience of the sector.” and that he was “A solicitor who later worked in the lobbying industry” He was an MP from 2010 to 2017 and shortly after that he became the campaign manager for Boris Johnson in his attempt to replace Theresa May as the leader of the Conservative Party which of course he achieved. According to the website for the Office for Students
The Office for Students (OfS) is an independent public body. We are not part of central Government, but we report to Parliament through the Department for Education (DfE). We were established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which also sets out our powers and general duties.
The article in the Guardian focused on James Wharton states “He is also close to Gavin Williamson, the education secretary.” The current Chair of the OfS is Sir Michael Barber who according to their website
Sir Michael is the chair of the OfS board and one of the leading education and government experts of the last 20 years. He served as chief adviser to the Secretary of State for Education from 1997, before setting up the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in 2001, which worked to ensure the successful implementation of the Prime Minister’s priority programmes, including those in education, health, transport, policing, criminal justice and immigration. Sir Michael is the author of several books, including ‘How to Run a Government’. Having worked as Head of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice and as Pearson’s Chief Education Adviser, Michael now runs his own company, Delivery Associates and took up his post as chair of the Office for Students in March 2017.
As many of us are aware this organisation was impacted previously a few months after its formation when Toby Young was appointed to the board at the beginning of 2018 and as the Independent newspaper explained shortly after:
The Department for Education made “avoidable mistakes” when appointing controversial journalist Toby Young to the new higher education watchdog board, according to a new report. Prepared by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, it says the department failed to trawl back far enough into the social media activity of Mr Young before giving him a role on the board of the Office for Students (OfS). Previous Twitter posts and comments from the journalist-turned free school pioneer sparked widespread criticism and he was forced to quit his post at the universities regulator a week after his appointment was announced in early January.
It was also very clear that Toby Young is a supporter of the Conservative Party. One of the ways in which Governments should avoid making such mistakes is their use of agencies such as the Commissioner for Public Appointments which the website for the agency explains
Peter Riddell has been Commissioner for Public Appointments since April 2016, responsible for ensuring that appointments to boards of public bodies are made on merit after fair and open competition.
As stated in the Guardian article referred to above Mr Riddell raised his concerns before James Wharton had been picked and that came from this article in another website
The commissioner for public appointments Peter Riddell has criticised the government for “packing” the panel to oversee the appointment of the next chair of the Office for Students (OfS) with political allies of the Conservative party. By “packing the composition of interview panels with allies”, the government “want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies”, Mr Riddell warned. He noted that the OfS recruitment panel features “no one with senior, recent experience of higher education or a student”.
The panel comprised according to the Guardian newspaper of
Along with the head civil servant at the Department for Education, Susan Acland-Hood, the five strong panel comprises Patricia Hodgson, the ex-Ofcom head who was once a Conservative parliamentary candidate; Eric Ollerenshaw, who was a Tory MP from 2010 to 2015; Laura Wyld, a Conservative peer; and Nick Timothy, who was Theresa May’s chief of staff.
It would appear that we need to find a way to challenge such matters, Now to be clear as expressed in the Guardian piece:
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, has written to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, seeking an investigation, saying Wharton “has none of the statutory qualifications for this post, and both the higher education sector and the wider public will be deeply concerned that this is simply another example of cronyism”
But of course if it is simply an opposition party that is raising these concerns the Government can try to ignore it. They should of course have not ignored Peter Riddell but that is too late. However our disappointment that the Government has yet again used an Independent role to be controlled by a member of their party is something we need to express. I was very disappointed that the Chair of the Charity Commission which in 2012 became William Shawcross who was clearly a Conservative supporter and then in 2018 when he finally stepped down the role was taken over by a Conservative member of the House of Lords. At the time it appeared that Baroness Stowell had resigned from the Conservative Party, but it is clear that since then she has continued to vote like a Conservative member of the House of Lords. She is about to step down as she has done the 3 year role so we can anticipate yet another Conservative Chair, let us hope that they will be someone who does understand charities because neither of the these two people did. No doubt Wharton who doesn’t understand student issues apart from his own experience at Durham University will certainly not resign and he has been a member of the Conservative Party since he was a a teenager. His lack of understanding of the education industry is as bad as that from Shawcross and Stowell who had almost no experience of charities. Perhaps one day a Government will invite students to select the Chair of the OfS and Charities to select the Chair of the Charity Commission and they will both be allowed to select people who are not members or supporters of the Government of the day, but are focused instead on the elements of the role!