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Lord Wharton sets out his priorities as new chair of the Office for Students

Lord Wharton, the new chair of the Office for Students

Lord Wharton, the new chair of the Office for Students (@OfficeStudents), will set out his priorities for the role in a @UniversitiesUK speech to university leaders today (14 May).

Speaking at the Universities UK members’ meeting, Lord Wharton will:

  • highlight the importance of high-quality courses, and universities’ central role in levelling-up access to higher education for students from all backgrounds
  • urge universities to redouble their efforts to tackle antisemitism and harassment on campus
  • signal a reduction in red tape for those universities and colleges that are delivering for students.

On fair access and the need for high quality courses across the English higher education sector, he will say:

“Everyone with the talent to benefit from a degree should have the opportunity to get to university, whatever their background. Accelerating progress on access must be a key element of the government’s levelling up agenda. I know from my experience as an MP in the North East that too many people are still locked out of higher education. Put simply, these are people who don’t think university is for them, even though they might have the potential and ability to thrive. The problem is not one of low aspirations – everyone wants to get on in life, and every parent wants to see their children succeed. But if nobody in your family and few in your community have made it to university, it is not surprising that talented pupils can lack the information and guidance to be able to make the choice to go to university.

“This needs to change if we are to truly level-up the country. We know that talent is spread across the country but opportunity is not. Every community should be a place first of high aspirations which in turn lead to high expectations that can then be converted into high attainment. 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. And universities have a critical role in developing that talent also, doing the hard graft with schools and pupils to drive up attainment and achievement from an early age.”

“Let me be clear though. 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 of which our higher education sector is rightly proud. 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.”

On the need to tackle sexual harassment and antisemitism, he will say:

“Any form of unlawful harassment must be tackled robustly, with universities not shirking difficult steps to make sure that students are protected. 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 to ensure that Jewish students are free to study and enjoy university life without fear of harassment.

“This is one of the reasons why I was so pleased to see the OfS recently publish its statement of expectations in relation to harassment and sexual misconduct. We have set out clearly the minimum expectations that any student should have about the systems and processes that their university or college should have in place to prevent and, where necessary, respond to incidents of unlawful harassment or sexual misconduct. I know that this statement of expectations is the result of extensive consultation and urge you all to ensure that your universities comply with these expectations, as a minimum. We have seen some shocking testimony from students on the Everyone’s Invited website. It is clear that many students continue to experience harassment and assault on and around campus. This is wholly unacceptable, and so now – ahead of the new academic year – is the time to take action. We will be carefully considering the response of the sector and listening to students’ views, before looking into options for connecting the statement directly to our conditions of registration.” 

Lord Wharton will also highlight work planned by the OfS to cut unnecessary regulatory burden. He will say:

“Reducing unnecessary burden will be a priority for me as chair of the OfS. We need to get the balance right between ensuring students and taxpayers enjoy the benefits of regulation without universities experiencing an overly bureaucratic process that detracts from their core purpose – delivering excellent teaching and research. I am sure there is more we can do to tackle this issue and I am delighted to announce that, as a first step, we will publish next week the details of a new key performance measure that will set out transparently whether our work is reducing or increasing regulatory burden. This will be an important step that will enable us to demonstrate – and be held to account for – the outcomes of our work in this area.”

“I hope you have already seen early signs of our intentions in our decision to suspend random sampling, reduce the use of enhanced monitoring, and increase the length of access and participation plans from one year to five. I am also keen that we think carefully about our communications with and requirements of universities. We need to strike the right balance between being clear and specific to ensure we have the right information we need to regulate effectively, while operating a principles-based regulatory system which allows for autonomy and diversity in the sector. I will want to hear from you where we are getting this right as well as where we could do better. We are serious about the need to tackle any needless bureaucracy and to ensure that our regulation is proportionate, truly risk-based and fair.”

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