The race to succeed Sir Michael Barber as chair of the Office for Students has begun, with the government appointed three Conservatives and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate to the five-strong recruitment panel.
The panel will be chaired by the yet-to-be-appointed permanent secretary at the Department for Education. The most recent incumbent, Jonathan Slater, was asked to step down from his role on 26 August in the wake of the A-level and GCSE grades fiasco after the “prime minister concluded that there is a need for fresh official leadership” in the department, the DfE said.
Sir Michael announced in June he would not seek a second term as OfS chair and would step down in March 2021.
Joining the DfE’s most senior civil servant on the panel are Dame Patricia Hodgson, former chairman of Ofcom and trustee of the Policy Exchange; Eric Ollerenshaw, former Conservative party MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood; Laura Wyld, a Conservative peer and non-executive board member at Ofsted; and Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former chief of staff.
Aside from her work in the media sector, Dame Patricia was a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England from 2005 to 2011 and served as principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 2006 to 2012. She stood as a Conservative party candidate for Islington South and Finsbury in the 1974 general election, but told the Evening Standard in 2006 that her links with the Tory party ended in 1981.
Mr Timothy, who advised Theresa May during her first year as prime minister, is now a non-executive director at the Department for Education. Before he was fired from his Downing Street role in 2017, he described university tuition fees as an “unsustainable Ponzi scheme” in need of reform and called for an end to the “university gravy train”, under which vice-chancellors are paid up to £451,000 a year.
Lady Wyld, a 42-year-old former communications specialist, combines her role at Ofsted with her job as non-executive board member at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
The Conservative-leaning interview panel will raise concerns that the appointment of the new chair may be politicised. The OfS is a non-departmental, arm’s length public body with significant powers to monitor and regulate autonomous universities in England.
The two-day-a-week role attracts a salary of £59,000. The chair will be expected to liaise with ministers and government officials to “set a new clear strategic direction” for the HE regulator, which takes “it into the next phase of its critical work”.
The successful candidate is not expected to have any prior knowledge or experience of the higher education sector, but the job advertisement states that “sound knowledge and understanding of the operation of regulatory activity” is preferred.