Minister pulled plug on top job selection process and appointed candidate he favoured
Serious criticisms have been made by a cross-party committee of Senedd Members after Education Minister Jeremy Miles decided to pull the plug on an agreed selection process and appoint a candidate he favoured to be chief executive of a powerful new body.
The Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) will have an annual budget of £800m and take responsibility for the strategy, funding and oversight of further education,, higher education, adult education and apprenticeships and training. It will be established in September and become operational in April 2024.
In April this year Mr Miles issued a written statement in which he announced that Simon Pirotte, the principal and chief executive of Bridgend College, was his preferred candidate for the new post at the Commission, even though he hadn’t initially submitted an application.
The Minister stated: “A rigorous, open recruitment process took place for the role of chief executive between November 2022 and February 2023. However, the panel was unable to recommend a candidate for appointment. Having carefully considered all options available to me, I have therefore decided to appoint directly into the role.”
In May a pre-appointment hearing took place at which Mr Pirotte was questioned by members of the Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee. During the hearing Mr Pirotte expressed incredulity that he was the Minister’s preferred candidate for chief executive, saying: “Nobody’s more surprised to be sitting here than me”. Asked why he hadn’t applied for the role when it was open, he told the committee: “To be honest, my thoughts were around planning retirement and buying a camper van.”
The committee has now published a report in which it states: “We are incredibly disappointed with the process that has been followed for this appointment. This is an incredibly important post, which will be responsible for ensuring the bold ambitions for the Commission will be delivered upon.
“The establishment of a new organisation is a critical time and decisions made now will shape how successful the Commission will be. While we understand the challenging timeframe in terms of establishing the Commission and the need to get key posts recruited, the importance and significance of this role means we believe an open recruitment process should have been re-run.”
Plaid Cymru MS Sioned Williams, a member of the committee which questioned Mr Pirotte, said: “When it comes to the appointment of a chief executive for a brand new body that will wield considerable power over education in Wales, the process must be beyond reproach. Ministerial appointments, like public appointments, should follow robust, fair and transparent processes as a matter of course.
“Chief executive of the brand new CTER is no small role – indeed the CTER will be second only to the Welsh NHS in terms of the scale of its budget. Yet the Welsh Labour Government has appointed a chief executive who was not part of the initial open application process.
“Having failed to appoint at the end of that rigorous process, a chief executive has been appointed who did not have to undertake the psychological assessments nor psychometric tests expected of others, and had no requirement to prepare a presentation, nor take part in engagement events with key stakeholders.
“This is no slight on the ability or suitability of the new chief executive, but a criticism of the way in which Ministers can appoint anyone they like to such a key role, side-stepping robust processes. The appointment method in this instance raises serious questions about the independence of this new body.”
Responding to the committee report in a letter to its chair Jayne Bryant, Mr Miles said: “I appreciate the Committee have long-standing concerns about the pre-appointment hearing process for public appointments, but as the report acknowledges this was not a public appointment. The first person appointed as chief executive to the Commission is a Ministerial appointment as set out in Schedule 1 to the Tertiary Education & Research (Wales) Act 2022. However, in recognition of the significant role that the Committee plays in education and the importance of this appointment, I committed to an introductory hearing during the passage of the Act.
“This is an important distinction, not least because the appointment process for the chief executive is not regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. I was obviously disappointed when informed that the recruitment panel were unable to recommend a suitable candidate for appointment following an extensive, open and robust recruitment process.
“I therefore considered professional advice from officials and our appointed executive search company on the merits of repeating the exercise. “This advice was clear on the operational risks to establishing the Commission associated with rerunning the exercise and the likelihood of it generating a different outcome so soon after concluding the initial process. In this context, the Committee will wish to note executive search had already contacted 190 potential candidates from across the tertiary education sector in Wales, the UK and beyond.
“The Commission would simply not have been established in September had I not taken the decision to move to a direct appointment, moreover there is absolutely no guarantee the Commission would have been operational by April 2024 had the recruitment exercise been re-run. I considered this an unacceptable outcome for learners in Wales.
“I note the Committee’s report into the chief executive highlights ‘concerns of stakeholders during our scrutiny of the Bill about protecting the independence of the Commission. It is important that the recruitment process for this critical post does not call that into question in any way.’
“I absolutely agree it is important we protect the independence of the Commission but would highlight Simon’s appointment has been widely welcomed across the various post 16 sectors. This is no small feat and, of course, there is no guarantee that re-running an open recruitment exercise would have led to this outcome.”
We have been told that, prior to the appointment, Mr Miles had met Mr Pirotte on just a handful of occasions for purely professional reasons.
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