Can Office for Students shake off rows and win over universities?

Concerns over the independence and intentions of England’s new higher education regulator as it becomes fully operational are unfounded, its chief executive insists

April 3, 2018
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Has any organisation created by the UK government endured as tumultuous a start as the Office for Students?

Before England’s new higher education regulator had even begun the job of regulating universities – a responsibility that it assumed on 1 April – it had already provoked a national outcry over the appointment of controversial journalist Toby Young to its board, sparking debates in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and had felt the sting of a highly critical watchdog report that revealed political interference from Downing Street.

Shaking off the accusation that it is the “Office for State Control” – a term coined recently by David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester – will be a tough job for the organisation, which is replacing the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

“The danger is that the Office for Students becomes a transmission mechanism for ministerial edicts,” reflected Lord Willetts, who was universities minister from 2010 to 2014.

“Hefce was a powerful and respected body that stood between ministers and universities – I hope the OfS can play that same role,” he said, adding that “this is also helpful for ministers, too”.

The OfS’ first three months have, however, sowed mistrust about how it might be influenced by ministers. In a swiftly delivered report on the bungled recruitment of Mr Young – whose history of crude, controversial and misogynistic remarks led almost 222,000 people to support an online petition demanding his sacking – Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, revealed how advisers at Downing Street had stepped in to block the appointment of any applicants on the basis of “student union activity” and “recent views on a number of public statements”, believed to relate to criticism of the government’s anti-extremism programme Prevent.

In one case, a candidate – believed to be Megan Dunn, a former president of the National Union of Students – was rejected for the dedicated “student experience” board role on advice from Downing Street even though she had been initially recommended for the role by Jo Johnson, when he was universities minister, and had subsequently gained the support of OfS chair Sir Michael Barber and Department for Education officials.

Instead of Ms Dunn, who was largely perceived as having been a moderate left-winger while NUS president between 2015 and 2016, and 133 other applicants for the “student experience” position, ministers appointed someone who had not even applied – Ruth Carlson, a civil engineering student at the University of Surrey who had been seeking a seat on the student panel. On 27 February, Sam Gyimah, the new universities minister, told Parliament approvingly that Ms Carlson had “no discernible political views”, adding that she was a “fantastic” appointment.

Having a politically neutral appointment in the role may please Downing Street, but it is likely to have alienated a large section of students. Writing in Times Higher Education on 10 March, Ruth Wilkinson, president of the University of Kent’s Students’ Union, called the move a “slap in the face for student representatives across the UK” and predicted that, without a connection to student democracy, Ms Carlson would struggle to represent student interests effectively.

Mr Gyimah’s own requests of the OfS have also raised some eyebrows. In a letter of “strategic guidance” to the new regulator, dated 20 February, the minister called for the new body to “monitor and review the number of unconditional offers” made by universities – suggesting potential action that would strike at the very heart of institutional autonomy over admissions.

The OfS, Mr Gyimah added, should also “work with providers, the universities minister and other regulatory partners to call out and challenge attempts to shut down freedom of speech, including the ‘no platforming’ policies held by some student unions” – an apparent attempt to co-opt the OfS into making hasty declarations on an issue that an inquiry by the Joint Committee for Human Rights published on 27 March deemed to have been “exaggerated” by media reporting.

His decision to launch a consultation on the subject-level teaching excellence framework – which is overseen by the OfS – midway through its pilot year also bemused some experts. More cynical observers saw the timing of the announcement as helpful only to Mr Gyimah’s political profile, rather than serving the interest of an informed consultation.

Mr Gyimah’s latest demands on the OfS – which critics see as motivated by a mix of anecdote, sensationalist media accounts and political opportunism rather than sound evidence – do not, however, represent a new age of political interference in regulation, insisted Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive.

“Hefce always issued annual guidance letters – it has always happened and needs to happen,” she told THE, adding that she “did not get this issue” of the OfS as a creature conjured up to enact ministerial whims.

So how will the OfS treat Mr Gyimah’s recommendations? “The government gives its guidance, and we will align it with our strategic priorities and make our own decisions,” explained Ms Dandridge, pointing out that how this happens would be decided by its 15-strong independent board.

The OfS will actually be a “much more powerful buffer” against political interference than its predecessor, Hefce, Ms Dandridge insisted.

“We have been set up and established with reference to a long and detailed act of Parliament [the Higher Education and Research Act 2017], which is very prescriptive about what we can and cannot do,” said Ms Dandridge, who described Hefce’s founding act from 1992 as being “extraordinarily broad brush” and thereby allowing far more interventions by ministers.

“In some aspects, independence [of the regulation] is better protected than ever,” Ms Dandridge added.

For instance, while the OfS has been portrayed as a new guardian of free speech on campus, Ms Dandridge pointed out that she “did not think there are additional powers” for the OfS, with the new act “broadly replacing existing regulation on free speech”.

“We could look at issues, and we have powers to do reviews, but we cannot enforce a breach of legislation,” she added, explaining that other bodies would continue to police the main protection of freedom of speech – the 1986 Education Act.

Ms Dandridge, a former Universities UK chief executive, admits that the OfS’ engagement with the sector will change in other areas compared with Hefce’s. For instance, the regulator will no longer have regional teams, whose collegiate and informal interactions with institutions about their directions of travel will be missed by some vice-chancellors.

“The structure is different because we are very serious about not being a regulator that imposes unnecessary regulation,” Ms Dandridge explained about the light-touch oversight of institutions with good track record.

“When an institution is above regulatory thresholds, we are not going to need to establish a relationship with them – they can go off and achieve their own thing,” she said. The OfS will rely on analysis of student outcomes and financial data to gauge whether intervention might be needed. “It will be very much focused on providers who are more at risk of dropping below these quality thresholds,” she added.

However, some university leaders may be unhappy about what they perceive as the OfS’ change in tone towards the sector compared with Hefce, such as its very first research study, published on 13 March, which gloomily claimed that just 38 per cent of students believed that they received value for money.

This focus on the student interest – rather than Hefce’s attention to “institutional sustainability”, said Ms Dandridge – should not be interpreted, however, as signalling that the OfS will be “more aggressive” towards institutions, she added.

“To be an effective regulator, we need to be utterly respectful,” she said, adding that the OfS “shared so many common objectives with the sector, which is also concerned with protecting student interests”.

“If there is negativity [towards the OfS], it is overstated because we care about the same things [as universities],” she said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: After rough start, OfS aims to  win over sector

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