New concerns have been raised over how the board of the Office for Students was chosen after it emerged that ministers vetoed a shortlist of “appointable” candidates to name their own student representative.
With an inquiry now under way into the “serious failing” that resulted in Toby Young’s appointment to the new university regulator without studying his history of controversial remarks, fresh doubts about the board’s selection process have been raised after MPs were told that the OfS’ preferred student candidates were ignored by ministers.
In a written answer to Labour MP Kevin Brennan published on 15 January, Sam Gyimah, the new universities minister, explained that 133 applications had been received for the dedicated student experience representative on the OfS’ 15-strong board, of whom six were interviewed.
Three candidates were then judged “appointable”, but “ministers chose not to appoint any of the three appointable candidates” and instead “chose to make an interim appointment of one of the successful candidates appointed to the OfS student panel onto the OfS board”.
Mr Gyimah added that the OfS will “re-run a campaign for a permanent student representative on the OfS board later in the year”.
The chosen candidate was named on 1 January as Ruth Carlson, a civil engineering student at the University of Surrey – although the Department for Education announcement did not state she was an interim appointment.
Little is known about Ms Carlson, a former president of the university’s women’s football team, who will also chair the OfS’ student panel. A new Twitter account was set up by Ms Carlson five days before her appointment was announced and she has yet to make any statement on what she hopes to achieve as a board member.
Her selection over three “appointable” candidates is likely to sour relations between the OfS and the National Union of Students after the regulator’s chief executive Nicola Dandridge told student leaders in October that the NUS would be “central” to its engagement with students.
Shakira Martin, president of the NUS and an OfS student panel member, said it was “hugely concerning that the government felt unable to appoint any of the student representative applicants interviewed and instead made do with a one-year appointment from the student panel”.
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 last April.
The news follows an outcry over the appointment of Mr Young, a controversial Spectator columnist, who quit as a board member on 9 January after more than 220,000 people signed a petition calling on the prime minister to sack him.
Peter Riddell, the public appointments commissioner, has said he is now “seeking the full papers on recent appointments to the board of the Office for Students from the Department for Education so I can establish in detail what occurred and whether this was in line with the government’s governance code”.