James Wharton’s OfS chair hearing

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David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Let me tell you about Yarm.

Generally seen (on teesside at least) as the posh bit of an area that includes Stockton-on-Tees, Middlesbrough, Billingham, and Thornaby – Yarm has a partially cobbled high street where it is impossible to find a parking space, a handful of decent pubs, and two very middle class comprehensive schools – Egglescliffe and Conyers.

But for seriously posh Yarm residents, there is also a private school – Yarm School. Co-educational since 2011, it’s the poshest bit of the posh bit of a pretty deprived area. And this – plus the classic Yarm School study at Durham after party- tells you everything you need to know about the educational background of James Wharton, Lord Wharton of Yarm and putative new chair of the Office for Students.

A political biography

If being put forward for a government-backed role makes Private Eye, you have a problem. The process itself was notably light on educational expertise and heavy on being mates with Boris, and it clearly generated a nomination where educational expertise was not the primary criteria. You’d think under such circumstances there would be a case for him not to hold the Conservative whip in the lords, but he seems determined to brazen that out.

Wharton was tangentially involved in student politics while at Durham, briefly and improbably as joint race relations officer at the SU (he answered a question on this interlude), and as president of the Durham University Conservative Association. Mind you he was also chair of Stockton Conservative Club at that point so perhaps his heart wasn’t in it.

Most law students end up doing commercial conveyancing at some point early in their career, and this was Wharton’s fate – though he managed to parlay this into a semi-regular Evening Gazette column. This fleeting local fame was the springboard for a successful 2010 election campaign, he became MP for the bellwether seat of Stockton South – lasting til the 2017 election. His single notable act in parliament was to introduce an EU Referendum Bill as a Private Member’s Bill in 2013. After losing his seat he ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign in 2019.

Not having all of the answers

But does he think about higher education? Very little, it seems – not in the sense of having a low opinion, but in the sense of having given the sector little thought before an intensive three week cramming operation. As the man says, “I don’t have all of the answers” but he’s keen to engage with stakeholders.

Because Robert Halfon was chair we started with widening access and danced around degree apprenticeships and similar issues. Wharton knew the basics, but had a cautious manner that meant he could not be drawn on his own thoughts.

As far as advancing policy positions went, he’s keen to see the UCAS personal statement remain during the inevitable transition to PQA. He quite likes the OU (a teacher at his school was an alumnus and fan). He also likes risk-based regulation.

There is an awareness that he had some catching up to do – understandable when he’s been looking at applying for every high-level government job going since he lost his seat. Wharton has missed being involved in public services. As regards what he brings to the table, he noted that his commercial skills would be valuable, and he knew how government and parliament works. It’s a good CV for a Head of Public Affairs or similar.

Some things to welcome

It was welcome to hear a commitment to work with NUS, and a sympathy with the aims of the “students deserve better” campaign. Wharton also made many of the right noises on Covid support – but his position on fee refunds was a matter of making it easier for students to claim these back from providers. The wider financial implications he saw as off the table for OfS discussions – a sharp contrast to an outgoing chair who has been keen to weigh in on many aspects of the sector.

It was also notable he was less hawkish on free speech than may have been expected. There is a role for regulator activity, and free speech is an important part of the university experience – but this is balanced against an understanding that “people should feel safe” and free speech is not inappropriate speech.

The regulatory framework is, apparently, working pretty well currently – but we also learned that the market in higher education is not working at all. Which leads logically to an argument to end the higher education market experiment, and I’m not sure this is quite what he intended. Rather he had a strong view on proportional regulation – “better” providers, for example, shouldn’t need their graduate outcomes monitored.

What are we to make of all this? There’s nothing to suggest that Wharton would not be appointed or appointed, but I’m curious that the bar has not been set high as regards taking an active and sustained interest in the sector. But as a starting point, if he’s serious about doing the job he should resign the government whip.

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