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Lords Report Slams Office for Students as a Potential ‘Smoke Screen’ for Post-Brexit Culture Wars

UK higher education qualifications have been suspended from the European quality standards body because of the way the Office for Students was regulating universities.

Lord Wharton in 2016, when he as James Wharton MP, Member of Parliament for Stockton South and Minister of State for the Northern Powerhouse. Photo: Jonathan Nicholson/Alamy

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 A highly critical House of Lords report questions today whether the Government’s new independent education regulator, the Office for Students, is “fit for purpose” to handle what it calls “the looming crisis facing higher education.”

The report by peers questions its independence from the Government, says it is not trusted by students and many higher education institutions and is complacent about the present finances of universities.

Lord Hollick, Chair of the Industry and Regulators Committee, who produced the report said: “At a time when the higher education sector faces a looming crisis caused by financial instability, increased costs, industrial action, and reduced EU research funding, it is vital that the sector’s regulator is fit for purpose.

“However, it was evident throughout our inquiry that the OfS is failing to deliver and does not command the trust or respect of either providers, or students, the very people whose interests it is supposed to defend. We were surprised by the regulator’s view that the sector’s finances are in good shape, which is not an assessment that we or most of our witnesses share.”


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A Smoke Screen?

The body, set up in 2018, was immediately the centre of controversy when Toby Young, the right-wing free school and free speech campaigner was appointed to the board without adequate checks about his social media tweets. Some 221,000 people signed a petition forcing him to quit over his controversial views on disabled people and working-class students getting into Oxbridge.

In 2021 the Government appointed James Wharton as chair of the regulator.  He became Lord Wharton after Johnson’s first dissolution honours list in 2019. He was Boris Johnson’s campaign manager after Theresa May stood down and was appointed in preference to Ivor Crewe the respected former master of University College, Oxford.

The report now questions whether Lord Wharton, who kept the Tory whip in the Lords, is genuinely independent of the government, particularly over its campaign for free speech in colleges and the “cancel culture” driven by the right-wing media. The peers found that this was not a student priority compared to concerns among students about the cost of living crisis and getting proper tuition from universities under pressure.

It added: “The perception that the OfS lacks independence is not aided by the fact that the OfS Chair continues to take the whip of the governing party in the House of Lords, whilst simultaneously claiming that the organisation, as a regulator, is independent of the Government. “

The report says: “There is a suspicion that “the student interest” is used as a smokescreen for the political priorities of ministers. We call on the OfS to conduct detailed scoping work, informed by engagement with students, to define “the student interest” and explain how this drives its work.”


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Post Brexit, UK higher education qualifications have been suspended from the European quality standards body because of the way the Office for Students was regulating universities.

 The report says: “It is concerning that England’s regulatory framework has shifted away from European quality standards. This has the potential to damage the sector’s international reputation, which is key in attracting international students”.

The report is critical of the way the body treated universities. It says: “The OfS’ approach to regulation often seems arbitrary, overly controlling and unnecessarily combative. It has been selective in choosing which of its duties to prioritise, expanded its remit into new areas and created the impression that it seeks to control and micro-manage providers.”

Lord Wharton, chair of the OfS, said: 

 “The OfS’s values include openness and seeking opportunities for learning, and the House of Lords’ Industry and Regulators Committee’s Inquiry provided a helpful opportunity to hear from representatives of higher education institutions, students, and policy-makers, and understand these stakeholders’ thoughts on our regulatory approach.

“Our detailed analysis of the data universities provide to us suggests that many are in good financial shape. We are also alive to significant risks, including the impact of a fixed undergraduate tuition fee, cost pressures and an overreliance by some on international students,” Lord Wharton explained.

 “The Committee’s report will also provide further impetus for our work to refresh the way we engage with the sector we regulate, and those for whom we regulate.” 

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