The announcement just before Christmas that Lord Wharton has been picked to replace Sir Michael Barber as the Chair of the Office for Students was simultaneously very surprising and totally expected.
It was surprising because no one seems to have previously mentioned his name in relation to the role but expected in the sense that it is at one with the current Government’s more politicised approach to public appointments.
The appointment of a former Conservative MP as Chair of the Office for Students follows, for example, the appointment of another former Conservative MP not previously known to have shown an interest in higher education, Sir Simon Burns, as the Chair of the higher education restructuring regime.
Because it was announced in the festive period in the middle of a pandemic, the appointment has had little scrutiny so far. Moreover, in theory it is not a done deal because there needs to be a pre-appointment hearing in front of the Education Select Committee. That body is chaired by the Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who tends to take an impressively robust approach to witnesses irrespective of where they sit on the political spectrum.
The hearing is expected in the next few weeks and the official guidance on pre-appointment hearings reminds us: ‘the final decision will not be taken until the select committee has reported’.
However, the Select Committee does not wield a veto. The Department for Education merely states: ‘the Education Secretary will consider the Committee’s recommendations before deciding whether to finalise the appointment.’
Some people working in the higher education sector with longish memories will recall that the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee rejected Les Ebdon as the preferred candidate for the post of Director for Fair Access. But the appointment (in which, to declare an interest, I was involved) went ahead anyway.
Indeed, it was a very successful: Les filled the role effectively for many years, was reappointed a few years in, and stood down only when the post was abolished following the Higher Education and Research Act (2017).
Despite this precedent, pre-appointment hearings are still important events. They engage parliamentarians in important public appointments, force candidates to prove they really do want the job they’ve been selected for and expose the appointments process to public and media scrutiny.
Pre-appointment hearings can also make a difference even without an official veto. Three years ago, the House of Commons Library found:
There were a total of 96 pre-appointment hearings between July 2007 and December 2017. Of these, there were five occasions where a committee made a negative assessment of the Government’s preferred candidate. For three of these, the appointment went ahead in any case (the Children’s Commissioner, the Director of the Office for Fair Access and HM Chief Inspector, Office for Standards in Education). In one case, the appointment did not go ahead (Her Majesty’s Inspector of Probation). In another, the candidate withdrew from the appointment process after a negative report was issued by the select committee (Chair of Monitor). There have also been situations where committees have had an impact on an appointment without producing a negative assessment of a candidate.
Over the Christmas break, I send Lord Wharton a Christmas hamper of recent HEPI reports in the hope that they would help him prepare for his appearance before the Select Committee. I have also been thinking what questions I would ask if I were one of those doing the grilling. I think I would pick from the list of 10 below.
- Where do you stand on university autonomy? The UK (and especially England) is often said to have the most autonomous universities in Europe, possibly the world. But for policymakers and regulators to make a difference, they sometimes feel they need to tread on that autonomy. How important do you see it and where should the line be drawn?
- What about the student voice? The Office for Students is meant to be ‘for students’. So how important do you think it will be to listen to students and how will you capture the authentic voice of students? Will you primarily listen to the National Union of Students, sabbatical officers at individual students’ unions, survey results (like the National Student Survey, which is under review), the Office for Students’ own Student Panel or some other source(s)?
- How should the Office for Students approach its statutory duty to ensure value for money? As the Chair you cannot dodge this issue, but there is no generally agreed way of measuring value – is it student satisfaction, contact hours, class size, learning gain, graduate employment, graduate pay or something else that matters most (or a mixture of all of these)?
- What is your general approach to regulation? Are you more inclined towards risk-based regulation than micro-management? Do you have thoughts on the differences between principles-based and rules-based systems of regulation?
- Where do you stand on the ‘surface issues’? Issues like vice-chancellors’ pay, grade inflation and the wilder excesses of student unions tend to earn many column inches but are sometimes regarded in the higher education sector itself as secondary (but still important) issues, coming behind matters such as future student numbers, financial sustainability, research performance, internationalisation, industrial relations and the state of university pensions. Will you tend to focus more on the surface issues that earn the most interest but may actually be less important or bigger issues lurking beneath the surface?
- How should the Office for Students work with governors? There are greater expectations on the governors of higher education institutions than in the recent past. How would you ensure constructive relations between the Office for Students and those governing universities, particularly Chairs of Council? Do you have a view on the most appropriate membership of governing bodies?
- What will you NOT seek to do? The expectations on the Office for Students are immense. You will clearly need to prioritise some issues and put others on the backburner. Can you offer a sense of your most urgent priorities in your early months?
- How important do you think it is to widen access to higher education? There are bold targets for boosting the admission of students from under-represented groups, but Government Ministers have spoken out against the sort of expansion which would enable this to happen without limiting the opportunities for others (when, for example, they have opposed the old Blairite 50% target). Moreover, even aside from the adverse impact of COVID on labour market opportunities, a big increase in demand for higher education has been expected due to demographic and other factors. Will you favour general expansion, something more limited or even contraction?
- What about new providers? The original idea behind moving away from the old Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was to put higher education providers of different types on the same regulatory ‘level playing field’. Yet the Office for Students’s Register includes far fewer providers than it was meant to and non-traditional providers (which used to be known as ‘alternative providers’) have tended to find life much tougher than they were meant to. Will you encourage supply-side reform by making it easier for newer, specialist and different providers to thrive?
- Will you speak truth unto power? There is a long tradition of robust exchange between higher education regulators and the government of the day. How can we be assured that the best interests of English higher education will be represented by someone who is (rightly or wrongly) perceived to owe their position in part to party politics?
This is a shortlist boiled down from my longer list, so it excludes many other important issues, like:
- whether it is feasible for a market regulator to be an important funder of the institutions it regulates;
- what the England-only Office for Students’ relationships should be like with regulatory bodies in the rest of the UK; and
- how the Office for Students should situate itself in relation to other important bodies (such as UKRI and its constituent parts, the Quality Assurance Agency and the Charity Commission).
But clear answers to these 10 issues would nonetheless provide us with some useful clarity on how our sector is likely to be regulated in the months and years ahead.