James Wharton at GuildHE, Gavin Williamson and Gillian Keegan at the Lifelong Education Commission

It was quite the day for digesting the inmost thoughts of current and former apologists for the Prime Minister.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

Away from the compelling eight hours of drama in the Wilson Room (key HE takeaway – Cummings argued alongside SAGE against the return of students to campus in September), the morning started with Office for Students chair James Wharton taking questions from vice chancellors at the GuildHE conference.

He said the key things you might expect him to – on grade inflation, IHRA, freedom of speech, and regulatory burden – OfS stands ready to act, though it is keen to support the sector by waiting for it to make the correct decisions.

You’d expect a man with as much media training as Wharton to play a careful game, and certainly he dealt with questions from the audience with a practiced ease. But there were some curiosities.

The return of the buffer

What feels like half a century ago HEFCE (OfS’ predecessor body) was often heard to describe itself as a “buffer body”, acting as an interface between government and the sector, and arguing the case for the sector to the government – language which the messaging and activity of the OfS was quick to dispel. In a couple of areas, Wharton seemed to bring this older conception back, with a keenness to “mitigate the negative and accentuate the positive” with regard to government pressure.

On the free speech champion issue, he was clear that the appointment would be a government (specifically Number 10) decision, but if the “wrong person” was appointed things could get challenging for the sector. There was a slight, almost imperceptible softening on absolute measures – it’s “dangerous to have too absolutist a position” apparently, and we were assured that fan favourites TEF and NSS would return in some form.

But it is still early days for the new chair, who has just completed an “intensive OfS induction”. For example, he notably did not echo the position of his predecessor on environmental monitoring – the HESA Estates return that covers things like carbon usage is currently optional, and Wharton was clear that given the regulatory burden the regulator should not have a strong role in this space. A statement he may come to regret as COP26 grows closer.

A perfect bill if you can believe in it

Meanwhile at the launch of ResPublica’s Lifelong Education Commission Gavin Williamson was keen to extol the virtues of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill and of Chris Skidmore, the latter of which understands the “gubbins” of education funding. The Secretary of State seemed particularly exercised about universities and employers working in partnership to deliver modular education, in a customarily enthusiastic keynote speech.

He was more than happy to describe an incomplete bill (with large amounts of critical plumbing on student finance expected as a government amendment in the Lords) “perfect”, so there was that. David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, pressed him on the speed of funding implementation, implying that following discussion with Alison Wolf the process could be speeded up – which appeared to be news to Gavin.

Skills Minister Gillian Keegan was marginally more impressive in fielding issues in the differences between regulation in higher and further education that may deter collaboration. With FE funding being reformed and simplified she assumes this will be easier – highlighting the interim Augar response commitment to consultation on student finance.

Simone Buitendijk at Leeds made the case for the involvement of research intensive providers in this agenda, again highlighting regulatory differences between HE and FE in blending provision on a modular or even finer-grained basis. Keegan’s “culture shift” response probably wasn’t the technical answer that was hoped for, allowing calls for employer leadership to dominate the response. Elsewhere the minister was clear that modular learning must lead to meaningful educational outcomes in its own right.

Ultimately it will be “attitude” that defines success, not regulatory change – apparently. If we all close our eyes and wish we will have an integrated skills system in England.

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