OfS Chair James Wharton busts out another chartbusting hit

Student mental health is through the floor and their perceptions of value are at an all time low, but at least students can reassure themselves that OfS is picking up some of the bigger and more important issues swirling around the higher education sector right now.

You know, like that “sensitivity readers” story about Oxford.

OfS is really a tale of four regulators. There’s the people who count things, who every week seem to find a new way of counting things at provider level that everyone else says may not have much to do with the actual agency of the provider. And the more stats they produce, the less we understand about why things are the way they are.

There’s the access and participation people. They’ve been lauded as insisting on tough new plans, but as yet we’ve not seen much evidence that those plans are working. And now we’re getting mood music from the Department for Education that they’re not that interested in the outcomes anyway. “What we need is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome”, said Gavin Williamson the other day. Or in other words – getting in, not getting on. That’ll do.

There’s the regulation people, running their strange little black box of conversations with providers in the shadows that we can’t see but are definitely scared of.

There used to be the “good practice” people, but then the old wedge of HEFCE Catalyst Funding that used to work out what the good practice was ran out, and so so did they – in a restructure.

And then there’s the Chair’s function – wandering around the country playing mood music about the latest moral panic in the press – what Barberololololology used to frame as “highlighting salient issues” or “positioning the organisation as a meaningful contributor to the debate” or whatever.

In his first few months Michael Barber was at it on free speech when he suggested that a national pro-life campaign group without a local student society might have the divine right to a tressle table at a Freshers’ fair, and topped off his stint by wishing that someone would collect data on all the times that speakers had been cancelled – only to find that his own regulator did, and nobody was being cancelled.

As such, Barber’s replacement James Wharton is a sort of freshly minted RONCO covers album of all of Barber’s moral panic greatest hits.

The other day, the Times reported that Oxford University students are to establish a group of “sensitivity readers” to review articles for their publications. At a vote last month, students supported the “need for better editing” at Oxford’s student papers, and proposed a website that would check submissions.

At the behest of the Telegraph, Lord Wharton – the actual chair of the actual regulator – waded in this morning:

Any censorship of views just because they are deemed difficult or uncomfortable would be unacceptable. The world is a tough place and journalists should be free to engage with difficult realities. There is a danger this approach could create a chilling effect – where journalists decide for themselves not to write about controversial subjects out of fear of falling foul of sensitivity readers. The importance to uphold and extend freedom of speech on campus remains crucial and measures which constrain legal freedoms should be rejected.”

Naturally, the implication that the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill might apply here was enough for the Telegraph cut’n’shut. But you have to get to paragraph 22 of the piece until you see a Cherwell spokesperson say:

As Cherwell is an independent publication and is not funded by the SU or distributed by them, we do not believe that there is any issue of freedom of press here.

Earlier in the week, Cherwell’s editor took to the Times to say:

If people were really concerned with the life of students on my campus, then they would listen to the voices of those that have been campaigning for decolonisation for years and the voices of those who actually live and exist in Oxford on a day-to-day basis. Instead, minor incidents in my university have become ammunition for the media and government to hurl around, to proclaim a culture of “wokeism” at a place that still over-represents the elite. Speak of a “culture war” all you want, but don’t pretend that you’re doing it for us.”

Oxford SU said the student-run service would be for editors who seek help with ensuring sensitivity and factual accuracy, and while not an SU policy or mandate, the union would help advertise the website and liaise with publications:

We do not have any editorial authority over any media publication in Oxford, the UK or internationally… The aim of this project is not to ban any subject or censor individual expression, but to help improve the accuracy and integrity of published work.”

Are we to believe that Wharton didn’t know that? Or that he couldn’t find Oxford SU’s statement on it on the web? Or have they abolished policy and staff support for the OfS Chair nowadays?

Or is it, maybe, that Lord Wharton is issuing his own mood music to create a “chilling effect” on even the most subtle, supportive and innocuous efforts at creating more inclusive and tolerant campus environments?

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