England’s new higher education regulator will not guarantee that the student representative’s seat on its board is awarded to a National Union of Students leader, its chief executive has said.
Speaking in her first official engagement as the Office for Students’ (OfS) new chief executive, Nicola Dandridge told an audience in London that she was keen that students should have “real power to shape and influence the higher education sector.”
However, the former Universities UK chief executive explained to a gathering of student leaders at the National Union of Students on 9 October that while it was “inconceivable” that the NUS would not play a leading role in the OfS’ consultations with students, the regulator may look elsewhere for its student representative board member and recruits to its newly announced 10-strong “student panel”, which will soon seek applications.
“We are the Office for Students, not the Office for the National Union of Students,” Ms Dandridge said when asked about the union, board representation and the student panel.
“The NUS will be central but we cannot engage with the NUS alone – we must get out and engage with a wider audience,” she added.
However, Ruth Wilkinson, president of the University of Kent’s Student Union, said that she would be “deeply disappointed” if the OfS board member, who will also chair the OfS student panel, did not come from the NUS, which represents about seven million students in the UK.
Ms Dandridge said in a statement before the event that the student panel’s views “will inform how we set up the Office for Students and how we set about our decision-making processes”.
She added: “We have been given extensive powers to act in the student interest. We will work constructively and respectfully with higher education providers, collaborating with them where we have common objectives. However, it is not our job to seek the sector’s friendship. We will be utterly uncompromising in intervening to prevent poor quality provision, or behaviour that damages students’ interests.”
The issue of student representation at the OfS has been a major source of contention. Calls for a dedicated student board member at the OfS were initially rejected by MPs at committee stage in September 2016, but an amendment to ensure student representation was later conceded by government to ensure that the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 was passed in April.
However, the inclusion of a non-NUS representative on the OfS’ board could alienate a powerful potential ally, albeit one that has opposed several key policy areas to be overseen by the regulator, such as the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF).
Any ensuing row could echo criticisms of the 2010 Browne Review, which included Rajay Naik – then chairman of the British Youth Council, a youth advocacy charity – to represent student interests, rather than an NUS leader. That review, initiated by the Labour government in 2009, faced attacks for lacking a genuine student voice on its panel.
Asked whether students who opposed the TEF and other policies overseen by the OfS would be welcome on its student panel, Ms Dandridge replied: “Absolutely.”
“We would welcome different views,” said Ms Dandridge, although applicants would “have to support the broad objectives of the OfS or it would not work.”