Going nuclear

SIR MICHAEL BARBER is used to difficult jobs. He was in charge of implementing policy during Tony Blair’s time in Downing Street, where he developed the doctrine of “deliverology”—think targets combined with the clever use of data to check they are met—while being castigated, by one newspaper columnist, as the “control freak’s control freak”. He has advised on an overhaul of schools in Pakistan, and published six books, including one called “How to Run a Government”. Now, at the age of 62, he has become chairman of the Office for Students (OfS). The new higher-education regulator begins work in April; its framework was laid before Parliament on February 28th.

Compared with his previous jobs, this one ought to have been a doddle. British universities are among the world’s best. The new regulator is powerful, bringing together the functions of various existing institutions. When Sir Michael was appointed last February, the government imagined a data-driven, technocratic organisation that would act as a “market regulator”, reflecting the fact that most funding now follows students, who get government loans of £9,250 ($12,830) a year to pay for tuition. The OfS would look out for students’ interests and boost competition by clearing the path to creating new institutions.

Since then, however, universities have found themselves uncomfortably close to the centre of British politics. The lesson many politicians drew from Labour’s surprising success at the general election in 2017 was that the Tories needed to work on their appeal to young voters. In particular, many worried that Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees had struck a chord with a generation saddled with big student debts and doubts about the value of their degrees. In July Damian Green, then deputy prime minister, said there was a need for a “national debate” over tuition fees.

He got one. And, to the dismay of universities, the debate has come to cover more than just fees. Andrew Adonis, a Labour peer and another former adviser to Mr Blair, has drawn attention to the salaries and perks enjoyed by vice-chancellors (a recent Channel 4 investigation found that one had spent £1,600 of university cash transporting his dog from Australia to Britain). In a speech in December Jo Johnson, then the universities minister, added his voice to the cacophony arguing that universities do not do enough to protect free speech on campus, calling for students to become “resilient and learn to deal with controversial opinions”. The latest crisis is that lecturers have gone on strike over cuts to their juicy pensions. The government has suggested that universities should compensate students for missed classes.

All this means that the job of regulating universities now comes with more scrutiny, and more responsibility. In his speech Mr Johnson announced that the OFS would, along with its other duties, protect free speech on campus. It will also look at university pay. Sir Michael says he will seek to prevent universities offering vice-chancellors egregious salaries—his powers include the ability to levy fines and even to strip institutions of university status—but adds that he doesn’t “want to get into a populist attack on vice-chancellors”.

Some wonder whether the regulator can possibly be effective in such areas. Free speech, for instance, is most often constrained not by universities but by student activists, who won’t much care if their institution is fined. University officials say the OfS may lose their confidence if it focuses on concerns that are tangential to what they see as the purpose of a university. It is not its job to get involved in things such as the squabble between academics and their employers, but that may be a hard message to get across.

A good start would have helped. Instead, the OfS appointed Toby Young, a former journalist and founder of a chain of schools, to its advisory board. He promptly resigned after it emerged that years ago he had sent some fantastically crude tweets, including about politicians. On February 26th a report by the Commissioner for Public Appointments criticised the OfS and the Department for Education for the way his appointment was carried out.

Sir Michael says he will focus on improving teaching, student employability and the information available to pupils picking a university, as well as expanding access to higher education. He hopes that free-speech issues “won’t take up too much of our time”. In his book he writes that a government must pick a narrow list of priorities and work on them relentlessly. Staff at the OfS must hope that ministerial whims don’t get in the way of a similar approach at the regulator.