My vision for meaningful student engagement

My speech at NUS, 9th October 2017:

Many thanks to everyone at the NUS for hosting me today, and thanks to you all for coming.

When it was first made public that I had been appointed as chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), Amatey Doku — NUS Vice President for higher education, tweeted that he looked forward to working with me ‘to ensure that the OfS is in fact an office for students’. I really like the edge to this tweet: and it was a fair challenge — because if we are not genuinely an office for students, we will not succeed.

Today I want to outline how I see this working, and how we can make sure that the OfS is not only having a demonstrably positive impact on students’ lives in the short, medium and longer term, but also how we can ensure that students are meaningfully engaged in what we do and how we do it.

This is early thinking: the OfS does not come into existence until January 2018, with staff transferring over from HEFCE and OFFA in April 2018.

I am going to cover three areas this morning: first how we are proposing to go about putting students at the heart of the OfS; secondly what the OfS is, and finally a few words about the new Regulatory Framework for which the Department for Education is just about to launch a consultation.

1. Students at the heart of the OfS

I am very clear that the OfS must engage seriously and honestly with students.

That means all students — undergraduate and postgraduate, young and mature, full time and part time, residential and learning remotely, domestic and international, and across all types of provider. Student unions and the NUS will play a central role here — on which point I am very much looking forward to sitting down with Shakira and NUS colleagues within the next few weeks and hearing their views on the opportunities and challenges that the new organisation poses. But we will also need to reach out to all students, including those who are not represented by a student union.

This is easily said, but less easily done. How do we go about getting the input of nearly 2 million students in England? This is one of the many areas where we are keen to hear your views. Much as we all here may find the intricacies of higher education and regulatory policy totally fascinating, many students will not be remotely interested or even aware of them. But I am hopeful that others will be, and will be willing to contribute to issues that will directly concern them and the wider student body. So the question then becomes how do we get to them and involve them?

One way is through our OfS board. We are currently recruiting a student representative to the board, and will be in a position to announce that soon.

Another way is through a Student Panel. I am therefore very pleased to announce this afternoon that we will be setting up a Student Panel that will bring together a group of students — probably about 10 people — drawn from across the sector. It will be chaired by the student representative from the board. I am keen to involve the NUS in its work, and will be discussing with them how best to do that. The Panel’s views will inform how we set up the OfS and how we set about our decision-making processes.

One of the roles that the Panel will play is working out how the OfS can ensure that its work properly involves students, including those whose backgrounds or circumstances may make it harder — for instance students with disabilities, mature students studying remotely, postgraduates, or international students. So to answer the question about how we involve students in our work, that is a question that I am hoping that the students on the Panel will help us answer.

We will be asking the Panel to think ahead to how students and their interests might be different ten years or more from now, and will also be proposing that they identify and oversee some specific research, which they will define, but we will fund. This will then feed into and inform the work of the executive team of the OfS, in a central and visible way. The Panel will therefore play a powerful role, with responsibility for helping us engage students to shape and influence the work of the OfS and the impact that it has on the higher education sector.

Because we want the Panel to inform not just the OfS’ work but also the OfS’ set-up, we are moving on the recruitment of the Panel very quickly and hope to advertise for members within the next few weeks. I do hope that some of you in this room will consider applying.

2. What is OfS?

Our chair, Michael Barber, defines the role of the OfS by reference to unlocking potential and unleashing greatness — a regulator that inspires and enables, that puts students at its heart, sets a high bar in terms of quality, but allows institutions to flourish on their own terms beyond that. He speaks about a new golden age for higher education. In his words “We intend to be stewards of the higher education landscape, acting decisively as necessary in the short and medium term, to ensure that higher education flourishes in the long-term.” It is a vision that takes account of the acutely competitive global environment in which higher education is now operating, looks forward to what the future holds for students and our country, and is also relentlessly positive and ambitious in terms of what the OfS will do.

Alongside the vision, we have the Higher Education and Research Act, which prescribes the OfS’ duties and powers in some detail. The Act sets us up to be a regulator, responding to the student interest, and also to the interests of the tax payer and employers. We will have a range of tools and powers available to us to ensure high standards are maintained, and to address any poor provision. As a regulator, we are very clear that we will be transparent and evidence led, and will work constructively and respectfully with providers, collaborating with them where there are common objectives. But we will be utterly uncompromising in intervening to prevent poor quality provision, or behaviour that damages students’ or tax payers’ interests, and that will include addressing issues such as vice chancellor and senior management pay. It will not be our job to seek the sector’s friendship.

I am often struck when people talk about how great higher education is in England that this is invariably expressed in terms of our having a world-leading system, or having outstanding universities. It is indeed true that we have a world-leading system and outstanding universities. But the way the words are expressed are significant, reflecting a deep-rooted view of the history of universities as a community of scholars, and of universities as anchors in their regions and communities. This history and those roles are important and must be respected, and in particular the contribution of higher education institutions to their regions is completely critical and will be central to the government’s industrial strategy and the development of the skills’ base that we need. But where are the students in those descriptions? For the 21st century where nearly 50% of young people are going to university, and with the country needing highly skilled graduates more than ever before, it is no longer enough to measure our success by reference to the institution. I see the role of the OfS being to turn those expressions inside out. So instead of our primary objective being to secure outstanding institutions with which students are somehow lucky to be associated, our focus will be on securing outstanding students, graduates and postgraduates. Of course, it is difficult to have the great student without the great institution, and we need both. But for the OfS our primary objective will be the success and excellence of the student and graduate.

This approach is entirely consistent with the fact that for many universities the idea of a community of scholars working together to expand the sum of human knowledge, is fundamental to their identity. For them teaching and research may be closely integrated, forming an indivisible whole. For the OfS, we will respond to that integration of teaching and research at national level by working closely and collaboratively with our sister organisation, UK Research and Innovation. At institutional level, we expect many institutions may continue to define their identities and strategies in ways that reflect that close integration between teaching and research. But this is the point: that focus on research must not eclipse students’ interests. The indivisible whole must not make students invisible. Of course research in universities is essential. But it must not come at the expense of students.

How are we going to achieve this? Michael Barber has identified five priorities:

o The Regulatory Framework — and I will say a few words about that shortly.

o Access, success and progression, making sure that all students, whatever their characteristics and background, can succeed in what they aspire to be and do. I am delighted that Chris Millward will be joining the OfS in early 2018 to take on the new role of the Director of Fair Access and Participation. By bringing responsibility for access, success and progression into the OfS, we will ensure that this critically important agenda is integral to everything that the OfS does.

o Inspiring Teaching — with the Teaching Excellence Framework at its core. Higher education is about so much, but at its core is teaching and learning in ways that inspire, inform and transform students, and supports them to achieve the outcomes that they want. This teaching will take many different forms in different institutions, from the research-informed where students study in close proximity to research, to vocationally-focused professional practice courses.

o Twenty first century economic growth. Students today are graduating, or completing their post graduate studies, in the most extraordinarily tough environment. We need to ensure that graduates and postgraduates are equipped with the knowledge, skills and experience to flourish in that environment. We also need to acknowledge and support the role that institutions play in their regions, not least in terms of ensuring that employers have the skills and qualifications that they need, and so that there is alignment between their needs and the skills and qualifications that students have when they leave higher education.

o The fifth priority is the creation of the OfS itself.

3. Regulatory Framework

I want to finish by saying a few words about the Regulatory Framework, which will be at the core of the OfS’ functions. A consultation on the Regulatory Framework is going to be published, inviting comments on an extensive set of proposals. At this stage, we do not know what the final version of the consultation will look like. But at the highest level, it is likely to invite comments on a set of proposals about how providers should be regulated. Its basic structure will involve a set of minimum standards. The approach will be data-led and transparent. Regulatory interventions will depend on the risk to students’ interests. It will be risk based, so that we will be decisive and unapologetic where necessary, and light touch where we have confidence.

To answer critics who say that the new model of regulation is likely to reduce higher education to a narrow, transactional experience, my response is that it will only do that if that is what you want. It is not what the OfS wants and nor, I believe, what government wants. Universities will carry on being about extending human understanding, and that can include learning for its own sake, and offering courses like the Latin, Greek and philosophy course that I studied as an undergraduate, and loved and found exhilarating and fascinating, and still draw on today. If that is what students want to study, and they understand what their options will be once they graduate, then the Framework will encourage that. As Michael Barber put it in his first speech as OfS chair back in June: ‘The acquisition of knowledge — for its own sake — and critical thinking capacity remain fundamental. The challenge is to engender the skills that will allow graduates to thrive in a global economy which is changing rapidly and fundamentally and, at the same time, to engender a love of knowledge and an endless curiosity.’

As part of our responsibilities towards students, the OfS will need to address the question of higher education providing value for money for students, and for the tax payer. This is partly about justifying the tuition fees that you are paying through your graduate contributions, and ensuring providers are using that money efficiently, and not extravagantly. It is also about recognising the value of your commitment in terms of time and opportunity: is the quality of your course, your learning and your wider experience at university stretching, stimulating, inspiring and challenging? Are you getting the support that you need? Will it help you get a job, and generally did it match your expectations? In short, are you happy with the contract that exists between you and your university or provider?

Which leads on to the question of data and information, which will also be central to the way the OfS implements the Framework. How can students make good decisions about whether, what and where to study, unless they have the information, advice and guidance to help them? All choices and decisions are conditioned, and for students their decisions inevitably reflect their backgrounds, and the information, advice and guidance that was available to them. To make proper choices about where and what to study, students need to have better information than they have now. The OfS will therefore want to look at how the benchmarked Teaching Excellence Framework, the information on Unistats, and data on graduate earnings, work for students in terms of ensuring they are well-informed about their choices. That includes how information and guidance links up between schools, universities, colleges and employers. High quality careers advice through from school to higher education and beyond has to play a central role.

This is in my view at the heart of how we make an effective market work, which is one of our responsibilities under the Higher Education and Research Act. I don’t think anyone thinks the current system on careers’ advice, and information, advice and guidance, are working as well as they should, and it will be a priority for the OfS to try and address this.

Once the Regulatory Framework consultation is published, do please respond. We are particularly interested to hear from students and students’ unions — either on specific sections that are of interest to you, or of course to the whole thing. One of the things I would like to ask you, and will be discussing with the NUS, is how best to do this: whether it would be worth hosting an open consultation session at a student union, or what else we could do.

So, to finish, please get involved with us. We have an unparalleled opportunity to make a significant difference to students’ experience and outcomes. We have been given extensive powers to act in the students’ interests in the short, medium and longer term. We want to work with students to make it happen, so as to ensure that the OfS is indeed an Office for Students.

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