Wharton tells vice-chancellors to improve schools standards

James Wharton is expected to tell vice-chancellors to improve access in places “where people feel forgotten”

Universities must do “the hard graft” to raise school attainment and achievement, especially in “towns and coastal communities where people feel forgotten”, the new chair of the Office for Students (OfS) will tell vice-chancellors later today.

James Wharton is expected to tell higher education sector leaders at a Universities UK members’ meeting to improve access by “casting their nets wide” and “doing the hard graft with schools and pupils to drive up attainment and achievement from an early age”.

Tory peer Lord Wharton will tell delegates that improving access to higher education in areas like North East England – an area he represented as MP for Stockton South from 2010 to 2017 – is a key plank of the government’s levelling up agenda.

Wharton will say: “We know that talent is spread across the country but opportunity is not.

“Universities, working with schools, have a crucial role to play here – they need to continue to reach out – especially to those towns and coastal communities where people feel forgotten – and to show people there that university is for them too.

“By casting their nets wide, searching for talent where opportunity may be in short supply, universities have the power to transform lives.”

It marks Wharton’s first speech as OfS chair. The Conservative party peer was criticised by vice-chancellors, an appointments watchdog and opposition MPs for accepting the chairmanship without relinquishing his party affiliation.

Although he speech will call for improved access, it will not call for higher participation rates. Last year, education secretary Gavin Williamson described the idea government should aim for half of all young people to go on to higher education as an “absurd mantra”, announcing he would ditch the 50% target first minted during the Blair administration.

Broadening access to university cannot be done by lowering standards. I do not accept the argument that levelling up can involve any reduction in the academic excellence and rigour
– Lord James Wharton, Office for Students

In Wharton’s view: “Broadening access to university cannot be done by lowering standards. I do not accept the argument that levelling up can involve any reduction in the academic excellence and rigour.

“It is incumbent on our universities to play their part in raising standards and attainment both at the point of access and throughout the higher education experience.”

Wharton’s first address to the sector will touch on his regulatory priorities, including tackling antisemitism and sexual harassment and reducing regulatory red tape.

On antisemitism, Wharton said universities must not shirk “difficult steps” to make students feel “free to study and enjoy university life”.

He will add: “One straightforward action to take is for all universities to sign up to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The definition is important in helping us all to interpret and understand antisemitism, and I strongly urge any university that hasn’t signed up to do so without delay.

“Those universities that have signed up must – of course – continue to be alert to antisemitic incidents and have clear measures in place.”

Wharton added that the regulator would – as suggested last month – consider adding newly announced guidelines on how universities should handle harassment and sexual misconduct to its conditions of registration.

He will confirm to vice-chancellors that the regulator will next week produce metrics that measure the level of the bureaucratic burden it places on providers. These metrics will help the regulator “get the balance right” for universities, and students and taxpayers, Wharton will say – and “set out transparently whether our work is reducing or increasing regulatory burden”. Vice-chancellors are to be told that the OfS is “serious about the need to tackle any needless bureaucracy” and wants to know “where [it] could do better”.


Read more: University freedom of speech bill to be presented to parliament

Related news: Universities minister accused of ‘washing hands’ of university antisemitism

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