The first chief executive of England’s Office for Students will be Nicola Dandridge, the current chief executive of Universities UK.
Ms Dandridge will leave UUK on 1 September, after eight years at the organisation, to take up her post at the powerful new regulator for the English sector, it was announced on 5 July.
At the OfS she will join Sir Michael Barber, the former education adviser at Pearson and head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit under Tony Blair, who had already been appointed as chair of the regulator.
The government has said that the OfS – created as a market-style regulator by the Higher Education and Research Act – will promote choice and competition and act in the interests of students. It will replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access.
It is thought that Ms Dandridge’s support for the teaching excellence framework and her perceived ability to “take the sector with her” on such major changes were key factors in her appointment by ministers.
Universities are likely to be reassured by the appointment, given that the OfS could have been more of a disruptive force had a figure from a market background been chosen as chief executive. And Ms Dandridge – who studied at the University of Oxford before taking law qualifications at London Metropolitan University and the University of Glasgow – brings deeper knowledge of the sector than Sir Michael.
However, her role at an organisation intended to act in the student interest may be seen as problematic by some, given her role leading UUK, the vice-chancellors’ lobbying organisation. She was a pivotal figure for the sector in 2010 as the coalition government formulated the trebling of fees to £9,000.
"I like Nicola Dandridge, but she is the wrong choice for head of the Office for Students," said Lord Adonis, the former education minister. "She is a lobbyist for the universities and in particular the vice-chancellors. What's needed is a poacher not gamekeeper."
However, Jo Johnson, universities and science minister, said Ms Dandridge’s “knowledge and experience of the higher education system makes Nicola an excellent choice to work alongside Sir Michael Barber at the helm of the OfS".
Sir Michael said that Ms Dandridge was "absolutely passionate about student success, in terms of academic excellence and employability". "She will bring the student perspective to everything she does," Sir Michael said.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, UUK president and University of Kent vice-chancellor, said that she was "delighted that someone with Nicola’s experience of and enthusiasm for higher education has been appointed to shape and lead the Office for Students".
Alongside Ms Dandridge's appointment, the government said that Martin Coleman, a competition lawyer, had been appointed deputy chair of the OfS.
UUK aims to announce its new chief executive ahead of its annual conference in early September.