New OfS Director to be appointed: But no role for the Commissioner for Public Appointments

The position of head of the Office for Students (OfS) is pivotal in steering the future of post-18 education institutions in England. Late on Friday saw the announcement of the process to recruit a new CEO for the OfS.  This comes at a time of considerable uncertainty and change.  Yet, unlike the previous appointment, this time it is not regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Some will find it strange that this is possible for such a pivotal role in turbulent times. But it may herald more direct central control of policy by the Department for Education. The OfS is going to find it tough as it is now expected to be responsible for “increasing real social mobility”. A tall order indeed.

The big surprise for many will be the assertion that the appointment is “NOT regulated by The Commissioner for Public Appointments”. This was not the case for the current director who was first appointed back in 2017.  The commission was set up in 1995 and is subject to the ‘Public Appointments Order in Council 2019’. Its Annual Report of 2020/21 shows the wide range of appointments under its normal remit, including the Office for Students.

The current CEO, Nicola Dandridge, was appointed to the first position of ‘Chief Executive of new Office for Students’ back in 2017. Her appointment was clearly regulated by ‘The Commissioner for Public Appointments’. This might be because; this was the standard set then, she was the first CEO of the OfS in its infancy, and she was appointed by the former Secretary of State for Education, the redoubtable Justine Greening. Dandridge will step down from the OfS at the end of April and her position will be covered by an interim CEO, insider Susan Lapworth, to the end of 2022. Dandridge was appointed as someone highly experienced in Higher Education arising from her several years as the head of Universities UK. Her successor will need to have just as much experience to cover the remit. The current head of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis replaced Dandridge back in 2017 and is near to his end of term. However, he is already moving to the position of pro vice-chancellor of partnerships and governance at the University of London in June.  He might be breathing a sigh of relief.

Fair access director and another crucial position.

Back in 2012, the original ‘Director of Fair Access’ position was regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments and one would also expect this to continue for such an important position. Instead, this approach has been side-lined.  John Blake was appointed as the new director by the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister of State for Higher and Further Education with the recruitment pack not mentioning the role of the Commissioner. It seems this less regulated process is expanding and allowing ministers too much latitude.

Are you thinking of having a crack at it?

If you feel you have the experience to take on the usual expectations of running an organistion of ≈400 staff, split between Bristol and London, you might consider it. You only have until 22nd March to submit a 2-page CV and 300-word case for getting paid £150,000 – £165,000 per annum starting next year.  But remember to mention any political affiliations.

However, bear in mind that “When 30 or more applications are received, it is likely that your application will be “pre-assessed” before it is passed to the Advisory Assessment Panel for consideration. You should be aware that in this situation, your application might not be considered in full by all the members of the Panel”.

The ‘panel’ itself might seem a little thin on the ground in numbering only three. Chaired by DfE official (and science graduate), Paul Kett, he is joined by the OfS chair, James Wharton (aka Lord Wharton of Yarm) and one other ‘independent’ member to be announced. Wharton is already controversial as he retains the Conservative whip in the Lords and has no direct experience of working in education.  His appointment was queried and looked into by the Commissioner for Public Appointments last year. The ‘independent’ panel member will be an interesting choice. Interestingly, the Commissioner cites Patricia Hodgson as a ‘senior independent panel member’ for the OfS in its Annual Report of 2020/21.

What the job might bring.

The effective management of sizeable data sources might be a bit daunting but the task may not be so large to deter many from pitching their case.  However, you must be able to keep the staff in line to make sure the OfS is, “discharging its statutory duties in line with ministerial priorities, government policy and actions and direction determined by the OfS Board”.   This alone could cause some to take a step back. Then there is “Working closely with Ministers and government officials to take the OfS through its next phase of critical work, including in relation to driving up quality, increasing real social mobility and reducing bureaucracy”.  These seem to represent the contents of a ‘poisoned chalice’.  Could this mean firing staff, burying sensitive data, and taking the blame for a lack of ‘real social mobility’.

A quick read of the ‘Framework’  for the OfS, drawn up by the Department of Education in 2018, arising from the ‘Higher Education and Research Act’ of 2017, reveals no responsibility for ‘social mobility’, real or unreal. The ‘Framework’ itself was amended in 2021 to enable the OfS to intervene more easily if a ‘provider’ was failing. Perhaps a new framework is in the offing.  With no definitive singular response to the ‘Augar recommendations’ of May 2019 at this a stage, the true intentions of the government have not been revealed. You might say, ‘show me those first’. Some contenders might not want to choke on the consequences of failing to get an answer.

Going Further and Higher.

Then there is the small matter of the Minister of State for Higher and Further Education acquiring the expanded brief of ‘Further Education’ last summer. There might be scope for more niggling doubts creeping in.  The current responsibility for Further Education (FE) regulation appears to be distributed across several agencies.  These include ‘Education & Skills Funding Agency’Ofsted as well as the OfS when degrees are provided. The reason is due to the role of FE Colleges in post 16 education and their importance in delivering T-levels alongside the recalcitrant BTEC courses. Then there is the added complication of the ‘Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’ (QAA) whose ‘independent’ work is often missing from regulatory policy making. This should not be ignored as its still on the playing field.

This change of direction is already underway. As a result of the ‘Review of the Education and Skills Funding Agency’ (ESFA) last year, the government announced a few days ago the changes it will make to the way it operates from April of this year.  This includes stripping the ESFA of many of its policy activities and consider “how functions moving from ESFA to DfE will integrate into the new organisational design”.  This is all under the banner of the so called “Future DfE project”

The result could well mean a shift to all policy-making becoming centralised for all post-16 education within the DfE. This could precipitate a wider responsibility role for the OfS without much of a say.  The new CEO of the OfS might find they are losing any influence on policy in exchange.

The consequential pivot point at sixteen.

TEFS has already pointed out that the removal of BTECs in favour of T-levels will force aspiring students to chose between an academic route or a ‘technical’ route at sixteen (TEFS 19th November 2021 ‘Post-16 education becoming a ‘dog’s breakfast’). There may be little scope for cross-over and this will be the critical pivot point in their lives. Many will be deterred from seeking university places. Indeed, they may find their choices exclude them from many traditional university courses. As a result, the OfS could find itself embroiled in a paradox as it tries to widen participation whilst swimming against the tide of post-sixteen education policy.

Central control of this development will be necessary to prevent conflicting policies on widening participation in universities from taking hold.  But those at the OfS are likely to come under increasing pressure to take responsibility for things over which they have little control.

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