The biggest change in higher education regulation in a generation came a step closer today with the publication for consultation of the Office for Students’ (OfS) proposed regulatory framework. The framework sets out how the new OfS will regulate higher education providers under the powers bestowed on it by the Higher Education and Research Act.
The consultation runs until 22 December, and I hope that anyone and everyone with an interest in how higher education can work for students takes the opportunity to respond. We will carefully consider the responses before making decisions about how the OfS will function when it is established next year.
The regulatory framework consultation is a significant milestone as we move towards the new regulatory regime. It contains a bold set of proposals that will drive the sector to focus on students, short, medium and long term. While I believe that the document sets out a positive, ambitious vision for the future, the approach it contains is not a foregone conclusion. We are looking for your views, and we want the sector to inform the shape of the final regulatory framework. In particular, we need students to engage with us at this formative stage, so that they can influence the framework to ensure that it truly works in their interests.
Since I started as chief executive of the OfS in September, I have taken every opportunity to meet with students at institutions across the country. As Sir Michael Barber, the first chair of the OfS, often says, listening and engaging with students “will be deeply embedded in the culture and working practices of the OfS as an institution and everyone who works for it”.
Exactly how the OfS approaches student engagement is something that needs student engagement itself. The student panel I announced at the NUS last week will help, but it is not the whole answer. We need to hear from students about how they would like to be heard, and responding to the consultation is an important mechanism for you to let us know.
As I meet with students and students’ unions, a recurring theme is their hope that the OfS will help their voices be heard in their own institutions. As society becomes ever more accustomed to influencing the products they use, and co-creating the world they live in, students reasonably expect to have a say in the design of their higher education experiences.
A central element of the proposed regulatory framework is its focus on outcomes, not processes. The OfS will not be in the business of telling autonomous academic institutions how to run themselves, will not dictate governance structures, or insist that there must be X students on committee Y. But the OfS must act to make sure that this desire from students is heard, and I want to learn from students what they think we should do – on this matter and others.
Are there examples of best practice we should champion? Should the role of students in a provider’s governance be clear to potential applicants?
As we build the OfS over the coming months, we will need to understand the student perspective on these and many others. The consultation is the greatest opportunity for students to share their views and to influence the regulatory approach for the next quarter-century. Help us live up to our name: help us ensure we really are the Office for Students.
Nicola Dandridge is chief executive of the Office for Students.