Conservative peer James Wharton has confirmed he will continue to take the Conservative party whip in the House of Lords if appointed as chair of the politically independent Office for Students in the coming months.
The 36-year-old Lord Wharton – who served as Conservative MP for Stockton South from 2010 to 2017 – is the government’s pick to succeed the regulator’s inaugural chair, Sir Michael Barber, who steps down at the end of March.
Conservative and Labour members of the House of Commons education select committee yesterday raised concerns about political neutrality with the Conservative peer, who managed Boris Johnson’s Conservative party leadership bid in 2017.
Conservative MP David Simmons asked how Lord Wharton would vote if his role as chairman and Conservative peer conflicted. “What I’ve made clear, and [Conservative party whips] have agreed, is that on issues where there is conflict with my role with the OfS, if appointed, they will give me more latitude and understand that I may need to vote against, or speak against, some of the things the party in government could bring forward.”
Wharton said that said parliament’s upper chamber “is more independent” and did not think his membership is “going to be a problem”.
“When it comes into conflict, my first duty will be with ensuring that that independence is given paramount importance and upheld,” he added.
When it comes into conflict, my first duty will be with ensuring that that independence is given paramount importance and upheld
– James Wharton
Wharton said he would explain his disagreements with government policy, should they arise, with ministers privately. “If you can’t find resolution by appropriate and informal engagement, then I’m not afraid of media. I’ve had a fair share of it in my time in politics in the past,” he explained. “I can assure you that I will be independent and open and say what I think when issues arise. And if that brings me into conflict with the government, so be it.”
MPs challenged Wharton on present government policy and what view he would take if appointed OfS chair. He responded that he had concerns about particular aspects of post-qualification admissions – namely that the personal statement will be axed. He said he welcomed the £50 million government fund to tackle student hardship, but “would also ask whether that is sufficient to meet some of the key and challenges right at the hard edge of the environment in which students find themselves”.
“[If] those issues can’t be resolved with the funding that’s available, that needs to be looked at, and the case needs to be made,” he continued.
As a candidate “not from within the higher education establishment”, Wharton said he hoped, as chair, he could “bring a fresh perspective” and knowledge of how government works.
Last month outgoing chair Sir Michael gave a speech, in an independent capacity, that criticised the higher education for not promoting diverse political opinions on campuses.
Freedom of speech has risen on the higher education agenda after Gavin Williamson made the receipt of emergency government loans conditional on “fully complying with [universities’] legal duties to secure freedom of speech”.
Wharton said “free speech does not mean inappropriate speech or hate speech or things that make people that make people legitimately feel excluded” but added that “it’s a crucial, important principle”.
“I think it’s a space in which the regulator should be active. There have been if some of the media reports are to be believed – and I would like to take time to engage properly with some of the individuals and institutions concerned before coming to a judgement – there have been some mistakes made.”
Wharton said “there are certainly flaws in the way that some people look at and assess universities”, noting that institutional strengths are best analysed at the “granular” level.
“The challenge is: brand is powerful. And people have overarching perceptions about universities and higher education institutions based on their brand,” Wharton noted. He said he hoped other measures of success, like employability, would help candidates understand the individual value of courses and providers.