Preferred candidate to lead universities watchdog plans to keep Tory whip

A Conservative peer who is the Government’s preferred candidate to chair England’s independent higher education regulator plans to retain the party whip in the House of Lords if confirmed in the post, MPs have heard.

Lord Wharton of Yarm, the former Tory MP for Stockton South, faced questions on how he would manage any possible conflicts of interest if he became chairman of the Office for Students (OfS).

Addressing MPs on the education select committee in a pre-appointment hearing, Lord Wharton said he recognised the “crucial importance” of the watchdog being independent and added he would “uphold that”.

But when asked whether he would retain the Conservative whip, Lord Wharton said he had already had a discussion with the whips in the Lords.

He said: “What I’ve made clear, and they have agreed, is that on issues where there is conflict – if they arise – with my role at the OfS, if I’m appointed, they will give me more latitude and understand that I may need to vote against or speak against some of the things the party in government could bring forward.

“At the same time, the House of Lords is more independent generally, I find, from my albeit limited experience so far, so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.

“However, I can absolutely assure the committee that I recognise the crucial importance of the regulator being independent. I intend to uphold that and where it comes into conflict, my first duty will be with ensuring that that independence is given paramount importance and upheld.”

Lord Wharton, a former parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development, was asked about his advisory role at the centre-right leaning think tank Policy Exchange.

He said he had not contributed to any education policy discussions and did not see “any conflict”.

Lord Wharton, who managed Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign in 2017, added that he had not discussed the OfS role “in any way” with the Prime Minister.

Asked where he might challenge the Government, Lord Wharton said he had “concerns” about the potential removal of personal statements if post-qualification admissions (PQA) proposals go ahead.

Addressing MPs, Lord Wharton said he wants the OfS to consider whether the process that students have to go through to challenge universities and obtain tuition fee refunds is “fit for purpose”.

He said: “I think the truth is that process currently is bureaucratic and cumbersome and slow, and most students don’t feel that it’s something that – were they to want to access it – that it’s easily available and readily available to them.”

Last year, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson pledged to ditch the target to send 50% of young people to university and to focus more on further education.

Former prime minister Tony Blair, in a speech in 1999, set a target of 50% of young people in England going into higher education.

Asked about the 50% target, Lord Wharton said: “I do think the target itself is too arbitrary and blunt. But at the same time, I want to be clear that I think we want as many people who could benefit from higher education as possible to feel that they can access it, to be able to access it.”