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“It’s a good question, actually…” – the OfS Chair meets MPs

Michael Barber met the Commons Education Select Committee, and gave us a clearer picture of how the Office for Students might operate. Mark Leach evaluates the performance of the 'delivery man'.
This article is more than 7 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Grey-suited, soberly-spoken, every inch the ‘humble public servant’ of legend, Sir Michael Barber’s career has been one that has been focused with laser precision on ensuring the visions of others are carried out, and that they are furnished with evidence that proves this if not beyond all reasonable doubt, then at least beyond all initial doubt.

In a characteristically modest touch, Barber opens his autobiography (Instructed to Deliver, available from all good bookshops) with a vignette concerning the moment he takes the Prime Minister’s seat at the cabinet table. In that case, he was merely chairing a meeting in Tony Blair’s absence – this time, he is applying to be not just the chair of a meeting, but of a major public body. How would a self-described “delivery man” rise to the challenge of  – in George HW Bush’s terms – “the vision thing”?

Seeing Barber appear before the Commons Education Select Committee, one couldn’t help but think that he would be a great Chair of HEFCE. It is currently fashionable to garland that doomed organisation with fulsome praise, but one got the sense that Sir Michael’s appreciation was heartfelt and genuine. Continuation and a need to build upon existing work came up in a number of his responses to the gentle questioning from the Committee.

Gone was the radical Barber of ‘An Avalanche is Coming‘ – this was a “provocation, not a blueprint” and “not particularly focused on the UK”. He was strong on institutional autonomy, recognising that institutions need to find their own way in an uncertain world. The reformer who didn’t want to wait for the fire did not appear to see any fundamental underlying structural issues with the higher education sector.

His likely love of the TEF – the quick win conclusion of many commentators – turned out to be rather more lukewarm than expected. It was “an important step forward and a powerful innovation”, which Sir Michael was glad to see phased in gradually. He liked the variety of data and the emphasis beyond box-ticking on the narrative. But he conspicuously failed to answer Neil Carmichael MP’s question as to whether the TEF would measure quality.

Also notable was Barber’s subtle deviation from the letter of DfE’s TEF guidance around grading to a curve (paras 7.39-7.41). Though the “this is not a quota” language blunts the impact, it is fairly clear that the government’s expectation that only 20-30% of entrants would see a “Gold” TEF (and so on) is an essential characteristic of the exercise. Barber refused even to countenance suggesting a percentage of institutions that should be Bronze.

For someone who had clearly done his homework this was a notable omission. His refusal to be drawn on the role of the Competition and Markets Authority in higher education was another, both suggesting that his days of seeing the power of others exercised in appropriate ways have gone. In welcoming John Kingman and Mark Walport to UKRI, he emphasised how often he has worked with them in the past – OfS will not be a junior partner in this relationship.

Barber sees the Chair role as being very distinct from that of the yet-to-be-announced CEO – though his interest in “the wiring” shone through on a number of occasions. But he came across as being more interested in conversation than aggregation. Even the new (and politically expensive) OfS powers of search entry – extreme audit, I suppose would be the post-Trumpian term – are unlikely to be exercised. As he put it: “sometimes you need the powers in the legislation, so you don’t have to use them”.

A UGC-like regime of “early quiet intervention via dialogue” (perhaps in the Athenaeum Club?) looks likely to be the future of most institutions under a Barber OfS.

The one area where teeth could potentially show would be around alternative providers. Barber spoke about the experiences of Ted Mitchell in the US making him want to avoid any “flood” of “cheap and cheerful colleges” for risk of a British Corinthian (or Trump University?) style scandal.

There is much for the sector to be happy about here, at least on the surface. If yesterday’s hearing is anything to go by there will be no deliverology-led data-driven revolution. Indeed, despite the pain and expense of the Higher Education and Research Bill, we might look forward very much to HEFCE part two. He even fielded that hoary old saws about research-informed teaching with practised aplomb.

But Barber scholars (and there are a few) will be perplexed by his refusal to offer success measures for the first years of OfS – whilst at the Delivery Unit he demanded every department drew a trajectory to describe likely progress towards a measurable target. How he ensures the smooth delivery of the heavy workload that the new organisation will take on, set against the backdrop of starting something new under intense public scrutiny, will be the great challenge of his stewardship.

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