University watchdog faces ‘impartiality’ questions

England’s new university regulator is facing questions about a potential conflict of interest.

Lord Wharton has been appointed chair of the Office for Students (OfS) but is also a paid adviser to a firm Aquind, which wants to build a cable linking the UK and French electricity grids. The £1.2bn project would be built through the University of Portsmouth, which is strongly opposed to the route.

The OfS says protections are in place to prevent conflicts of interest. “Where there is a conflict related to an individual higher education provider we would expect the relevant board member to exclude themselves from any decisions directly related to that provider,” said a spokesman for the OfS university watchdog.

But the OfS declined to say whether that would specifically apply to the University of Portsmouth and its incoming chair, Conservative peer, Lord Wharton.

The University of Portsmouth says any “perceived conflict of interest” needs to be “transparently managed”.

The electricity cable “interconnector” plan has prompted much local protest in Portsmouth – with both Labour and Conservative MPs in the city opposing its digging through such a densely-populated area.

The city council’s planning officials said the prospect of it being pushed through with the compulsory acquisition of land was “draconian” and an “interference with human rights”.

The University of Portsmouth, whose land it would run through, is concerned about disruption to sporting facilities and says it would have a “huge negative impact” and leave it facing financial losses.

Aquind firmly rejects the university’s claims, saying the impact would be “minimal”, work would be carried out in a way that reduced disruption and the route of the “underground cable corridor has been amended and refined” in response to earlier feedback.

But the university will now face Lord Wharton both as someone working for Aquind, on the opposing side in this commercial dispute, and also the chair of the regulator, which has powers to impose fines and sanctions on universities such as itself.

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