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James Wharton resigns as OfS chair


Conservative peer exits English regulator soon after advent of Labour government

James Wharton has resigned from his position as chair of the Office for Students, the Department for Education has said, with the Conservative peer exiting rapidly after the arrival of a Labour government.

Wharton was appointed chair of England’s regulator in 2021 while Boris Johnson was prime minister. There was concern at the time that the appointment of Wharton—who ran Johnson’s leadership campaign and is close to former education secretary Gavin Williamson—was a politicised one. The Department for Education, which appoints the OfS chair, has said that proper procedure was followed.

In a statement on 9 July, the DfE extended its thanks to Wharton for his service through “a period of change and challenge at the OfS”.

“Lord Wharton’s resignation has been accepted,” the statement continued. “The process to appoint an interim chair is underway, and a permanent replacement will be announced in due course."

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS, said: “Lord Wharton joined the OfS in early 2021, as the country and the higher education sector began to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. During his time as chair, the OfS has continued to develop as a regulator.

“We reset our approach to regulating quality, launched our Equality of Opportunity Risk Register and reported on the financial pressures affecting students and institutions. I’m grateful for his support for colleagues across the OfS during this period, and for all his work with our important sector.”

In response: Sector reaction to Wharton resignation

Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor, University of Birmingham: 

“Good regulation requires that the regulator both maintains a sceptical distance from the regulated entity and seeks to understand it. The aim of regulation is to seek good outcomes rather than develop a hostile environment which prevents that from happening.

“Although the OfS has matured during recent years, it is not clear that Lord Wharton ever really appreciated the value of, or had sympathy for, the varied missions of England’s universities.”

Diana Beech, chief executive, London Higher:

“With the change of UK government, Lord Wharton’s resignation as OfS chair was inevitable given he continued to take the Conservative whip despite growing concerns over a lack of political independence.

“While his position was often a point of contention, his chairmanship of the regulator at least provided a point of continuity for the sector at a time when several education secretaries and higher education ministers have passed through the doors of the Department for Education.”

Nick Hillman, director, Higher Education Policy Institute:

“I had qualms about the original appointment, given the lack of previous higher education experience on Lord Wharton’s CV. But on the rare occasions when our paths have directly crossed, I’ve always found him keen to engage and learn in the interests of delivering a better higher education sector.

“He presided over a gradual improvement within the OfS. So I’m sorry to see him go and I wish him all the best for the future.”

Brooke Storer-Church, chief executive officer, GuildHE:

“We look forward to seeing who the new government appoints for this important role. This is a timely change providing an opportunity to ensure a new chair is able to advise the regulator through the challenges ahead and into a more positive and constructive working relationship with providers across the sector, as they grapple with financial pressures amidst their efforts to support the government in its ambition for economic growth.”