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Revealed: The five universities OfS chair has visited


FOI request shows three of five visits by James Wharton were within the golden triangle

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Conservative peer James Wharton has only visited two universities outside London and the south-east since becoming chair of the Office for Students in February 2021, Research Professional News has learned.

Earlier this month Research Professional News revealed that Wharton had visited only five providers in total between February 2021 and 10 March 2023. The story came after former chair, Michael Barber, told a House of Lords committee inquiry into the OfS that he had visited “roughly 40” universities as chair—over a period of around four years—and was a particularly frequent visitor in his earlier years in the job.

The inquiry, conducted by the Lords Industry and Regulators committee, had its latest hearing on 28 March. A theme of discussions has been complaints from university representatives about how the OfS communicates and interacts with institutions.

University visits

A freedom of information request by Research Professional News reveals today the five institutions that Wharton has visited: the University of Nottingham (22 November 2021); King’s College London (9 February 2022); Sheffield Hallam University (25 February, 2022); The Engineering and Design Institute in London (25 March 2022); and the University of Cambridge (24 November 2022).

Three of the five institutions—Nottingham, Cambridge and King’s— are Russell Group members while another, TEDI London, was co-founded by King’s along with Arizona State University in the US and the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Questions were raised about Wharton’s experience of higher education when he was appointed OfS chair in 2021 given that he had never held any previous role in the sector. In 2018 he faced criticism after the Guardian newspaper revealed he had only rarely visited locations in northern England in his role as minister for the Northern Powerhouse. 

Research Professional News has approached the OfS and Wharton for comment.

‘Important to get out and about’

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said it was “critically important” for those in higher education to get “out and about beyond the old favourites because, when you do, you realise there is no such thing as a bad university in England”.

“Rather, every university has its strong points and its areas for further improvement,” he told us. 

“It’s also necessary if you are going to understand in full the local contribution that, say, Falmouth or Worcester or Cumbria delivers. So I urge every institution I visit to invite policymakers to campus as nothing beats seeing a university close up and they won’t come if you don’t invite them.”