Reading the first interview with the new OfS chair

Okay, let’s do this. The new chair of the Office for Students, James Wharton (Lord Wharton of Yarm) started on 1 April, and today sees the publication of his first “in depth” interview - with the Telegraph.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

What are we looking for here? – well, any clues about his thoughts on the actual regulation of universities, what we could perhaps call his day job (or his two day a week job). He spends the rest of the week as a member of the House of Lords, where he takes the government whip, so I’d also be interested to note any mild deviations from government policy of the sort you would use to make the point you were independent.

More free speech stuff

So the first thing he wants to say in a year where student learning has been put at risk by a pandemic, where there are serious questions about refunding all students that remain to be answered, and where a worrying handful of providers are in a financially perilous way is about “cancel culture” (note we’ve gone far beyond “no platform” at this point), which our man claims is “deeply unhealthy” and has a “chill effect” on freedom of speech.

You will note that this stops short of providing any measurable index of how bad the problem is, whether it has got worse or is slowly improving, and whether it is all over the sector or is concentrated in particular parts. Wharton has the results of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Prevent Monitoring Reports in his desk, which could put some numbers on this – at the very least allowing a comparison with the 2017-18 figures, which found that just 0.09 per cent of events involving external speakers did not go ahead.

Wharton appears to be under the impression he has “new powers” to address free speech with fines and deregistrations. These powers have existed since the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 – OfS condition of registration E1 enshrines the Public Interest Governance Principles, one of which refers to academic freedom and another to freedom of speech. There are plans about to legislate (for some reason) to include another condition of registration that actually says “free speech” on the front, but this hasn’t happened so far.

Our new chair seems happy enough with imagining he has new powers, so maybe we should leave it at that? “It would be a nonsense to take on these powers and fail to use them”, he says. I’m glad he was never a minister of defence.

Toby Young, for some reason

Yes, of course they asked him about Toby Young. In the very next paragraph to a note about the supposed new Free Speech Champion that will be appointed to the OfS board by Gavin Williamson, Wharton goes on record as describing Young’s “Free Speech Union” as “a positive contribution” and “a good thing” for students. He’s not asked about the way all the actual students left the connected Free Speech Youth Advisory Board when they found out it was just another vanity project.

Older readers may recall that Toby Young was first announced as a possible OfS board member on New Years’ Day 2018. This lasted a matter of days until the sheer amount of dubious and ill-considered things that grown up adult journalist Toby Young has said and done forced a u-turn. Since this time Young has campaigned at length, and with no regard to consistency and truth, for an end to lockdown restrictions – an intervention in public discourse that can fairly be held alongside the rest of his career and his advocacy of eugenics as a fair measure of the man and his suitability for any form of public role.

Toby Young has spoken out about the new OfS role, and has further demonstrated his judgement and connections by nominating fellow contrarian Brendan O’Neill for the job.

White working class boys, of course

The Office for Students releases data on the experiences of students and applicants by ethnicity and index of multiple deprivation quintile as a part of the access and participation dashboard. It tells us that 21.5 per cent of all students are white working class (IMD quintile 1 and 2),  21 per cent are from similar backgrounds with other ethnicities. An astonishing 45.2 per cent of students are white and from IMD quintiles 3, 4, and 5, compared to an equally astonishing 12.3 per cent of students from IMD 3,4,5 of other ethnicities.

Now, this is broad brush data, and there are many ways to approach this question. But the data provided by the OfS does not, to me, suggest that the big access problem is among white 18 year olds from IMD quintiles 1 and 2. It is possible to pull together data that does demonstrate this particular issue (you could use free school meals eligibility rather than IMD for example), and someone has taken the trouble to brief Wharton very well using it. I mean, not well enough – he’s using proportions and rates of increase without any reference to the actual totals – if there are less people in a given demographic then the rate of entry will fluctuate. But he makes a fair fist of it – and even ties in “levelling up” – if only he hadn’t said “working class”.

Grade inflation, again

A man named Barnaby Lenon (who is on the Ofqual Standards Advisory Group and is a Professor of Education at the University of Buckingham) suggests that we could be in for “Weimar Republic” levels of grade inflation this year. He does have something of a habit of decrying standards in education, but maybe he has a point. When his recent eye-catching turn of phrase is put to Wharton, the latter merely suggests that universities “need to have confidence” that grades are an accurate reflection of applicants abilities.

But the new chair elides this into another point about catch up work, which will apparently happen before students begin courses proper. There’s no policy prescription or anything – we’re at the “may need” level of spitballing. He doesn’t mention the universities and courses that already do this, or even think over the practicalities of starting a bunch of students early.

Back on grade inflation at degree level – we learn from Wharton that “if everyone gets a first, no one gets [a?] first”, proof if proof were needed that the University of Durham covers rhetorical tautology. The next paragraph is worth quoting in full:

Noting that over a third (35 per cent) of students were awarded a first class honours last year, he said that ever growing inflation threatens to “devalue the whole grading system”. He also said there are questions around this.

Now he’ll also be aware that this increase in first class degrees last year was due to a series of special circumstances – though “no detriment” rules meant that students would not be penalised for problems completing work in lockdown, one would need to have been working at a first class level consistently in order to be awarded a first class degree. The increases were primarily among students from demographic groups who had not traditionally seen first class honours in any great numbers – suggesting that something about the use of final exams was actively disadvantaging these students and that there are very obvious things that could be done about this.

Perhaps that is one of the “questions”. We never find out what they are.

Foreign students stealing stuff?

I did a double take too. Apparently overseas students have been “stealing secrets” and sending them back to “wherever it is they’re sending them back to”. Yes, it’s news to me as well – I’ve traced it back as far as a statement from the Trump-era FBI in 2019. Wharton is reluctant to name a particularly country, but he did say:

We all know what I’m talking about

Which zooms straight to the top of my favourite OfS chair quotations, surpassing “golden ages don’t have to be in the past” by some margin.

I have no idea what James Wharton is talking about. The number of students dealing with actual “secrets” as a part of their course is probably pretty low – in the rare cases (I guess with some specialised post-graduate programmes or industrial placements) where this happens you would guess that some kind of vetting would already be in place.

We have to be better at guarding against those who come to take knowledge away, and hand it over to regimes that don’t align with our broad liberal democratic Western outlook

Now, again, I’m struggling here – but the majority of knowledge generated in universities is published as an academic paper or something similar, and these days this is most likely to be an open access publication. Sharing information across borders is literally how you do science. If there are state secrets or commercial intellectual property flying about, there are already safeguards for that kind of information in use by students (and academics, for that matter).

As an aside, I like how England has been downgraded to a “broadly” liberal democratic western outlook. Only “broadly” – I mean, let’s not get caught up in specifics here.

Media management

Normally when you interview a public figure like James Wharton “broadly” is, you’d get two articles out of it. The first would be the news story – picking out the notable statements from a long-form “wide ranging” interview that would include lots of writerly stuff to demonstrate what a good interview it was (“The flag in Lord Wharton’s Zoom background highlighted the blue in his eyes, which sparkled as he became enthused by his favourite topic – subject coding in sector statistics. The 37 year old peer of the realm and former commercial property lawyer waxed lyrical on the advantages of the Common Academic Hierarchy over the old Joint Academic Coding System”).

You can see the skeleton of both articles in this piece – there’s a stray reference to a “wide ranging interview” that looks like it should have been a link to the longer piece, the first section on free speech is in the short, clipped, tone of a shock-horror free speech headline for a small box-out on the front page.

Clearly an editor has gotten involved and noted how little content is in this piece. It’s literally a statement of government policy from a member of the government. He makes basic, factual, errors. So two pieces became one, and the front page idea was lost.

So what have we learned about the new chair? He knows the party line. He has a moderate level of media experience (it’s a soft interview but he always steps back from saying anything newsworthy).

However, we know he spent yesterday talking to the OfS Student Panel, a body that I imagine brought up none of the issues raised here and pressed the need for more immediate action on problems that are facing students right now. Stuff like the pandemic, accommodation, fee refunds, consumer guidance, sexual misconduct, support for care experienced students. None of which came up in the first public statement from the chair of the Office for Students.

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