Ministers are being called upon to investigate James Wharton, the chair of the Office for Students (OfS), the university regulatory body, regarding his recent participation in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest, Hungary.
Wharton – whilst not speaking strictly in his capacity as the chair of the OfS – gave a speech via video link that praised and endorsed the recent victory of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, describing CPAC as a ‘great chance to pick up new ideas [and] reconnect with friends across the world’, as well as an opportunity to ‘fight for the values that we all hold dear.’
On the same day that Wharton spoke, Zsolt Bayer also took to the stage at this gathering of US Republicans. Bayer has a long history of virulent racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia – thus many are outraged that the chair of England’s regulatory body generally described such speakers as Bayer, Donald Trump, and Tucker Carlson as his ‘friends across the world.’
‘Sharing a platform with racists, antisemities, and right-wing extremists’
Shadow women and equalities secretary and chair of the Labour Party, Anneliese Dodds, has called on the Conservatives to clarify whether Wharton was given permission to attend and speak at CPAC, and if his presence there denotes Conservative support of such values.
Writing in a letter to Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party co-chair, Dodds wrote; ‘Will you urgently explain whether the Conservatives think it is acceptable for the chair of the Office for Students to publicly endorse Mr Orbán at a time when Lord Wharton is responsible for defending academic freedom in this country?
‘And will you condemn Lord Wharton for sharing a platform with racists, antisemites and right-wing extremists?’
‘No reasonable excuse’
Liberal Democrat spokesperson for education, Munira Wilson, conveyed a similar sentiment, writing: ‘It’s incredibly disturbing that the head of the independent regulator for higher education moves in such circles. There’s no reasonable excuse for keeping such company.
‘This is a really bad look for the OfS and completely undermines their stated zero-tolerance policy on racism and antisemitism. The education secretary must investigate Wharton’s attendance at this event without delay. Students from ethnic minority groups and Jewish communities deserve answers.’
Professor Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, told the Guardian: ‘It is a worrying time for students from diverse, underprivileged and minority backgrounds. It is pretty clear the chair of the OfS will not be fighting their corner.’
Professor Kalwant Bhopal, director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at the University of Birmingham, also said to the Guardian: ‘It is hugely disappointing that the chair for the OfS has chosen to speak at this event. This suggests we cannot be confident that the OfS will address issues of racism and take them seriously.
‘This is a step backwards and reinforces the rhetoric from right-wing politicians that racism is no longer an issue.’
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has since defended Wharton. When questioned in parliament, Zahawi said: ‘I support the chair of the Office for Students for all his work that he’s doing in improving outcomes for students in our universities.’