Lord Wharton, the new chair of the Office for Students (OfS), set out his priorities in a speech to university leaders on 14 May.
He highlighted the need for fair access to higher education and the importance of ensuring high-quality courses. He also urged universities to increase their efforts in tackling antisemitism and sexual harassment on their campuses.
Lord Wharton also mentioned a reduction in red tape for higher education institutions that deliver for students.
The speech was given at the Universities UK (UUK) members’ meeting, and his statements were published online by the OfS before it was delivered.
The speech stated: “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.”
We are serious about the need to tackle any needless bureaucracy and to ensure that our regulation is proportionate, truly risk-based and fair
– Lord Wharton
“By casting their nets wide and 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”, he added.
“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.”
He went on to say that “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.”
On sexual harassment he said: “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.”
“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.”
His last point of focus was on planned OfS work to cut the regulatory burden for universities and higher education institutions. He said: “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 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.”
“We are serious about the need to tackle any needless bureaucracy and to ensure that our regulation is proportionate, truly risk-based and fair.”
Lord Wharton, whose full title is James Stephen Wharton, Baron Wharton of Yarm, was a Conservative MP for Stockton South from 2010 to 2017. Lord Wharton entered the House of Lords in 2020.
Kate Green, the current Shadow Secretary of State for Education, had previously criticised Lord Wharton’s appointment as cronyism, and questioned his “qualifications” for the role. Lord Wharton had previously helped manage Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.