Student voice gets Lord's ear

October 19, 2007

The student voice is about to get louder with the launch of a new initiative to give students a greater say in government, writes Rebecca Attwood. In the week in which Lord Triesman, the Higher Education Minister, is given the new title of "Minister for Students", he will announce the creation of a new student forum that he said would have "teeth" and would keep ministers informed as to "what it is that students in the modern world may want".

Speaking exclusively to The Times Higher ahead of the formal announcement, he said that the introduction of tuition fees had changed students' attitudes.

"I think the new fees system has probably made people more alert to what it is they expect, which is reasonable enough," he said.

But despite having an official ministerial brief that uses the word "customers" to describe today's students, Lord Triesman was quick to allay concerns among some academics that students are behaving more like consumers of a paid-for service, with ever-increasing demands. He said such language did not accurately reflect the way students relate to their university, describing the relationship between students, their lecturers and their institutions as "far deeper" and more complex.

Lord Triesman said higher education had "a lot of machinery" for students who feel aggrieved but it tended to reside in bodies that students went to "after someone feels that something has gone wrong", rather than in organisations designed to "think about policy and strategy about higher education into the future".

The new forum might sometimes be a source of criticism of universities, he said, "but it is actually rather better that (the criticisms) are ventilated, and certainly better that they are ventilated than go into litigation".

The forum - made up of representatives from the National Union of Students, the National Postgraduate Committee, Skill (National Bureau for Students with Disabilities) and international students - will "call to account" the Government on higher education issues of concern to students.

It will meet quarterly and will produce an annual report of recommendations, to which ministers will be obliged to respond in full.

Lord Triesman - who, as a student in the 1960s, was suspended from Essex University after breaking up a meeting addressed by a defence industry scientist - said that when the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was formed this summer ministers started with an "absolute rule" that they should not rely on their own "rather dusty" memories of what it was like to be at university. "As policy areas emerge ... I want to be able to ask a strongly representative student body how they see those questions," Lord Triesman said.

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