OfS union branch weighs in on Wharton

The episode appears to have had what we can only describe as a chilling effect on Office for Students staff

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

The Office for Students – like HEFCE before it – has a branch of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) trade union, the traditional union for all but the most senior staff civil servants and staff at arms length bodies.

Though PCS nationally is known for being outspoken, the branch at England’s higher education regulator has always been a comparatively quiet backwater, concerned primarily (at least, during my HEFCE days) with the byzantine annual review system that was linked to pay awards, and a shockingly poor maternity offer for a place that employs such a lot of young female staff. If it gives you any idea, when I was on the branch committee it was led by a local Conservative councillor.

I cannot remember the branch ever making a public statement, which makes the long and detailed letter released on Thursday all the more surprising.

Isn’t it ironic?

On the day that OfS chair James Wharton spoke alongside noted antisemite Zsolt Bayer to praise the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban – a government that has severely constrained academic freedom and become actively involved in the ideological and structural oversight of universities, hardworking OfS staff were issued with guidance on accepting invitations to speak at events.

Staff have raised concerns that Wharton’s decision to speak at CPAC Hungary undermined ongoing work on tackling harassment in the higher education sector, and noted with alarm the concerns of the Union of Jewish Students. The fact that this all happened while OfS is following a government mandate to disengage with the National Union of Students – a group that has both apologised for historic antisemitism and set up an independent inquiry into more recent complaints – makes the apparent absence of consequences for the chair all the more worrying.

Neither OfS nor its Department for Education sponsors have issued anything beyond assurances that Wharton was consorting with antisemites and people who close universities that criticise their government in his own free time. Wharton himself has claimed to OfS staff that he didn’t know who Zsolt Bayer was, but has offered no apologies for his participation or his clearly expressed support for the Orban administration.

On the nose

All this has hit motivation and morale at the Office for Students hard. In a passage of the letter that will surely be quoted several times in next month’s Commons debate on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, OfS staff tell us they:

are disappointed that there has been no attempt so far by Directors to engage with staff or talk openly with them about their concerns and the next steps the organisation will need to take to repair the damage. Members fear that senior staff being silent on this issue is a tacit acknowledgement that the organisation accepts the chair’s views and behaviour and members fear that they may be singled out for talking about it.

This feels a little like evidence for a “chilling effect” experienced by OfS staff who may wish to speak out against James Wharton’s views on Orban.

Wharton’s political immaturity was priced in to his appointment as chair – you just have to look into his register of interests to see that. What OfS staff are really concerned about the absence of any corporate or departmental condemnation of his clearly inappropriate actions. Had a chair of a university or a students’ union shared a platform with someone like Zsolt Bayer, OfS would be investigating, ministers would be issuing condemnatory statements, and Robert Halfon’s Commons Education Committee would be holding an emergency hearing.

I wouldn’t hold your breath on any of that.

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