Why did Robert Halfon interview an OfS student panel candidate?

No policy movement, but some interesting points raised in Westminster Hall?

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Westminster Hall debates seldom generate fireworks.

They’re one of the less-understood means of holding ministers to account – any backbench member can apply via the Table Office for a 30, 60, or 90 minute debate, to which a relevant minister will respond. Though longer and more detailed than adjournment debates or departmental question time, they have a lower status as they do not take place in the commons chamber.

Emma Hardy, MP for Hull West and Hessle, had been successful in securing a debate on the Office for Students – and kicked off proceedings by emphasising a need for high quality sector regulation in line with the regulators code. She’d clearly been consulting widely with the sector, and her points will be familiar to many. In a nutshell:

  • OfS is one of many regulators active in English higher education, and the cumulative regulatory and data collection burden is very high.
  • There are concerns about the OfS no longer complying with recognised international standards
  • There are concerns about the value for money of OfS (noting the rumoured 13 per cent subscription increase that sits somewhere on Robert Halfon’s desk)
  • There are concerns about the place of the student voice within OfS – noting the comments made by former members at the Industry and Regulators Committee
  • And there are concerns about a high level of political interference, with the regulator likely to disregard consultation responses in favour of departmental press releases.

The ministerial response didn’t quite address most of these points, but it did offer a few interesting glimpses into the way Halfon sees his arms-length body.

For instance, we learn that he chose to interview a recent appointment to the student panel (we presume this was new student board member Caleb Stevens, but we’ve asked the department for clarification). Quite how this interview fed in to the selection and appointment process is not clear – but it would feel to me that perhaps the minister shouldn’t really be interviewing a student representative that will be (hopefully) challenging the work of an independent regulator.

Overall, Halfon is an OfS fan – he was keen to commend the activity of the OfS (for the most part!) as it did vital work to support government priorities. He’s happy to take promises of burden reduction at face value, which he kind of has to as the relevant task force last met in June 2022.

The decision on registration fees is still to be made – he wouldn’t be drawn on the amount that will be charged in 2024-25, but he did suggest he would be personally reviewing the costs for smaller providers. However, as he thinks the current fee for regulation amounts to around £13 per full-time equivalent student (OfS itself is happy to admit to just under £19 inclusive of the mandatory DQB and DDB subscriptions) we will have to take this under advisement. And the minister did put forward that “there is too much regulation in my view”, promising that he is looking at this carefully.

But is there political interference in the work of the OfS? – apparently when Robert Halfon meets the Chair and Chief Executive he “literally just talked about what needs to be done”, which reads like less of an example of independence than he perhaps intended. He would not be drawn on the independence of James Wharton (whip-taking member of the government, donor to conservative politicians, guest speaker at Hungarian CPAC) as chair or the impact that this has on the organisation.

As Emma Hardy concluded, noting her time under his chairmanship at Commons Education Committee – “we deserve a chair of OfS who cares about education as much as we do”. Alas there is a lot the higher education sector deserves that it doesn’t get.

Update: Since publication I’ve been able to confirm that Halfon was referring to Caleb Stevens’ appointment as an OfS board member (rather than as a panel member as he actually said: “I made a decision as a Minister to interview one of the members of the student panel”). He’s given the power to appoint board members in section 2 of Schedule 1 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

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