The Office for Students held its launch conference last week and invited the president of the National Union of Students to give a keynote address.
This offer to Shakira Martin was meant to demonstrate how the new higher education regulator will listen to the organisation representing 7 million students.
But shocking revelations about how NUS-affiliated students were barred from sitting on the OfS’ board suggest how representatives from students’ unions are really being treated.
As the damning report by Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, made clear on 26 February, ministers broke the rules to block several well-qualified candidates precisely because they had been involved with the NUS.
In fact, out of 133 applications, of whom six people were interviewed and three considered “appointable”, none were selected.
Instead, an interim appointment has been shunted forward and given a variable length of term (it was a year, then nine months, now six months).
Despite being very competent, the person appointed has no connection with the collective, wider student body in the UK. Why was this interim appointment made in such haste and why were so many qualified candidates rejected? It was because of their involvement in student politics.
What a slap in the face for student representatives across the UK.
What a hypocritical decision from a government whose ministers often argue for freedom of speech on campus and frequently castigate students’ unions for their alleged no platforming policies. In fact, the NUS’ no platform policy is limited to a small number of racist, fascist and extremist groups.
Why is there such hostility towards NUS representatives? Who can better represent the student voice than someone who has been chosen by their fellow students, who has listened to students, demonstrated understanding and ability and won an election at a national conference representing millions of students across the UK?
No single person in this country will better understand the broad range of issues facing students across the UK than the elected officers of the NUS.
Their full-time job is to talk to us, visit campuses and support us, give us advice and hear our concerns, and channel those concerns into effective representation to the people who matter.
It might not be the answer that the prime minister wants, but it is the right answer for student representation.
Yes, the student representatives might disagree with some parts of the OfS agenda, such as its heavy-handed policies on freedom of speech. And we would like to have a full and frank debate about the value of no platform policies in students’ unions, as well as their application, before the new rules come into force.
But if the OfS is going to achieve its purpose of delivering a higher education system that works in the best interests of students, then that debate needs to be had and it can only be had with a true representative in the room.
We already have established mechanisms for supporting and representing students and to deny the NUS a seat at the table undermines the value of a united student voice, of collectivism and of the experiences and knowledge held by our elected officers.
The Office for Students may need to consider changing its name.
Ruth Wilkinson is president of University of Kent’s Students’ Union.