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Vice-chancellors say political bias will be ‘challenge’ for OfS chair

Webinar hears concerns over impartiality, and a call for more nuance around free speech

Vice-chancellors have warned of a potential “challenge” regarding political bias, following the appointment of the Office for Students’ new chair.

Speaking during a webinar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE on 23 February, they also called for more “nuance” in debates around free speech in universities.

University of Sussex vice-chancellor Adam Tickell raised concerns over the appointee to the chair of the Office for Students, James Wharton, who remains a Conservative Party peer in the House of Lords.

“I worry about it,” he said. “It is important that we have a clear distinction between the state and…regulation, and I think we need to just be very clear about that.”

But Tickell stressed that universities were regulated within “a rules-based system rather than one that’s operated by an individual”, adding that many people who “get close to universities learn to love them”.

“Even if they start off as critics, they learn to love them, so it is quite possible that we would have a highly politicised individual who comes to be an advocate rather than a critic,” he said.

Kathryn Mitchell, vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, said that regulation of universities was “important” but needed to be “challenged and scrutinised from both sides”.

“I think you have to have an independence from that political viewpoint as the regulator, whether that means…people [can] separate themselves—that’s really got to be…a personal decision but I think it is a challenge.”

The Department for Education, which appointed Wharton, has said the decision was “regulated by the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, who plays a vital role in ensuring the process is open and fair”.

Resolving the irresolvable

Elsewhere during the webinar, Tickell called for more “nuance” in the debate on free speech at universities, and said that institutions “are expected to be the ground in which we resolve these irresolvable differences and tensions”.

“At Sussex I’ve got one very high-profile lesbian feminist advocate who is very strong on the third wave feminism, who is [gender critical] in her language, and I’ve also got a very large transgender community who find that a very difficult place to be,” he said, adding that the university had to “try to create a culture where it’s OK for people to respect the difference in opinions”.

“So I think this is actually really vigorous defence of free speech, but it’s quite tricky because it’s often a defence of free speech by letting people have that debate rather than by saying, as a university…that we are going to take one side or other. All we can do is create an environment where people feel at least minimally able to be unhappy with other people’s positions.”