NUS represents students on almost 30 higher education committees across various bodies including the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, HEFCE and the Higher Education Academy. We are well respected within the sector and expect to be recognised as it goes through the most significant reforms in a generation. So, last month, when applications for a place on the Office for Students’ (OfS) Board opened, I naturally leapt at the opportunity to amplify the voice of the seven million students I represent.
NUS is a confederation of close to 600 students’ unions, representing more than 95 per cent of all higher education and further education unions in the UK. We exist to ensure that education is transformative; skills and learning are accessible; and every student in the UK is empowered to achieve their potential.
A synergy of purpose
There is, then, a synergy in purpose between ourselves and the purported aims of the government’s new Office for Students.
From ambitions to improve teaching quality in universities, to bolstering the rights and protections that students have in the event of course or institutional failure, to introducing measures to effectively widen access and participation – it is clear that NUS shares the principles that have been identified as priorities for the new OfS to deliver on.
It will be naturally important, then, that the voice of students is put at the heart of the new higher education framework. The best way to achieve this is to give NUS a seat at the table and foster a collaborative relationship; ensuring that students receive adequate representation in these new structures is a good place to start.
Although we have not always agreed with the government’s vision, we are committed to putting our shared principles into practice. If OfS is to be run effectively and meet expectations, it must ensure that the student voice is captured at every level. NUS is an organisation that seeks to put the student voice at the forefront of the debate, and to that end, I will ensure that our members are heard and we start to strive for a model of partnership and collaboration moving into the future.
More to do
There are a number of pressing challenges for the new OfS that we can meet together. In particular, I am interested in how we can ensure a renewed and extended focus on widening participation and access. This will involve protecting the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) role, but also going further to ensure that fair access becomes the priority we so desperately need it to be. I echo the recent concerns of Les Ebdon; we must ensure that, during the transition to a larger organisation with competing priorities, fair access and participation are not forced onto the backseat.
Whilst OFFA has done great work in recent years to improve access for disadvantaged students, at the current rate of progress it will be a long time before there’s a level playing field.
We need to trigger a wider conversation about what access really means, and how we expand the kind of transformative opportunities that education can provide.
I don’t want see OfS preserve the status quo. Instead, we need them to do more to support those that face challenges to accessing and succeeding in HE.
There are many specific challenges that are now well-documented: we know that there is an access problem for young working class people, mature student numbers have plummeted and the Black attainment gap remains stubborn. I know from personal experience the immense barriers that exist for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and believe that this absolutely must become a priority moving into the future.
Given that NUS’ Poverty Commission, which looks at the working class journey into and through education, is to be our flagship campaign this year, it’s especially key that the OfS is discussing the university landscape for those less privileged trying to get into university and access to elite institutions play a vital role.
Our Commission aims to highlight the barriers working class students face throughout post-16 education and will be producing a series of recommendations for government, policy makers and education and training providers. We will be inviting submissions from OFFA, as well as individual institutions and students’ unions and I hope that the outcomes of the commission will trigger a national debate about the financial and social barriers that are preventing students from accessing and excelling in education. I want to see OfS leading the way in delivering our recommendations.
Next month, we will be hosting Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of OfS at NUS’ London offices. As the elected president of an organisation that represents over seven million students, I look forward to working together to ensure that the new regulatory body does what it says on the tin – and acts as an effective force for students.
I hope that this meeting will be the first of many and the beginning of a strong working relationship with OfS, because it is imperative that our members are heard by the body that will be regulator and student champion for our higher education institutions.