When people in Sheffield need legal advice, they don’t just turn to established law firms. With legal aid increasingly difficult to obtain in civil cases in the UK, they can access free advice from law students at Sheffield Hallam University, who work at the HKC Law Clinic, supervised by qualified solicitors. It is a great example of a university embedding practical, long-term work experience, which helps students and the local community.
But it is not exceptional. My greatest privilege as chair of the Office for Students in our first year as regulator for the English university sector has been the chance to visit more than 30 universities, colleges and specialist providers and experience the diversity, innovativeness and quality of what they offer.
We have been tough on some issues. Some in the sector wanted us to temper our expectations on improving access and outcomes for disadvantaged students, or whisper rather than shout about grade inflation. Some universities would rather we had quietly shelved our report that showed the growing trend of “unconditional offers” with strings attached. And it would certainly have been easier for vice-chancellors had we not vastly increased the transparency around their pay.
But we were right to shine a spotlight on these areas. It is precisely because we want to protect and enhance the world-leading nature of England’s higher education sector that we have intervened – and will continue to do so – where things go wrong, either at sector or institution level.
At times, this will be difficult. It is true that universities are subject to a very different type of regulation now than they were before, under the Higher Education Funding Council for England. So it is no surprise that some have found our introduction challenging. But I want everyone – especially students – to judge us on our record. Are we protecting students’ rights? Is our regulation providing a step change in progress on access? Are we intervening decisively where necessary? Is the funding that we have provided improving students’ mental health and well-being? Those are some of the fundamental questions that must be answered.
Equally, though, focusing on the problems must not hide the brilliant work going on in our universities and colleges. I have been impressed to see how deadly serious so many are about ensuring that their doors are open to all who have the talent to benefit from the life-changing opportunities that higher education brings, and doing so from an early age: including how the University of Liverpool and Liverpool Football Club have set up an IntoUniversity centre in the shadow of Anfield.
Increasingly, universities recognise that access is about more than getting disadvantaged students through the door. Students’ unions are pressing for new and innovative approaches to help their members’ studies. 24/7 libraries are becoming more common and well used. And tutoring is becoming more intensive – such as at Birkbeck, University of London, where its largely mature, part-time students receive prompt, precise, one-to-one feedback on assignments.
And, of course, universities are increasingly providing opportunities for students to prepare for life after graduation so that they do not get trapped in a cycle of unpaid internships. Employability advice and opportunities to volunteer are becoming an integral part of the student experience, not an afterthought. Take the contemporary history course at King’s College London, which has a great partnership with leading civil servants, as a result of which its students get to participate in classes taking place in the Treasury and 10 Downing Street.
All of us in the sector should promote and recognise our successes through a wide programme of engagement. This could include inviting people into universities to see for themselves, putting on cultural and educational events and branding business parks clearly so that higher education’s role as a job creator is plain for all to see.
The English university sector continues to lead the world for its research and scholarship. The OfS is determined to keep it that way, ensuring that our regulation supports practice and policy that benefits the best qualified generation of students we have ever seen. Drawing public attention where things go wrong, or students’ rights and opportunities are compromised, is part of that. But it is far from the whole.
Michael Barber is chair of the Office for Students.