With a lot of media and political attention placed on student fees, perhaps to the detriment of other areas of policy, a little known student representative receives a phone call from an experienced government mandarin with a new role in determining the future of the sector. A new committee was in formation, and a student voice needed to be heard. The year was 1996.
The parallels between Simon Wright’s experience on the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, and the appointment of Ruth Carlson to the board of the Office for Students, are many. But what lessons can be learned from Wright’s experience on the Dearing review?
“Key for me was that I had access to two quite experienced individuals active in student politics – I was able to meet with them and share thinking and my concerns. A student representative at this level needs a safe space to ask questions, explore nuances and intricacies.”
Both the secretariat (staff at the then DfEE) and other board members made themselves available, and were generous with their time. But the supportive way in which Ron Dearing chaired the review ensured that the voice of the committee’s youngest member was heard.
Wright recalls “the very first phone conversation set the tone – it was very clear that my views were important and should be heard, and that his door was always open. Right from the off, it was clear that my inclusion wasn’t a tokenistic gesture”.
The workload was surprisingly onerous – with 2-3 days in London for the Cardiff-based Wright – and as well as the main committee he sat on numerous working groups, including on Funding and Student Support, Staff and Use of resources and Teaching Quality and Standards. His then employers at Cardiff University Students’ Union were hugely flexible ensuring that he had the time to participate and prepare.
As the report was coming together, Wright checked back to the submission from the National Union of Students and took reassurance that “pretty much everything other than fees that NUS had lobbied for had been delivered. Even on fees I remember very well working hard to ensure the report gave full consideration to the merits of a graduate tax.
Famously, faced with prospect a wide-ranging and detailed report making recommendations on everything from governance, teaching standards, and the FE sector, to science and research, the new Blair administration chose to impose student fees as many suspected was already planned. But other recommendations were returned to in HEFCE policy development and the 2003 White Paper.
As a student representative, Wright was disappointed with the immediate outcome. He told the Times Higher Educational Supplement in 1998 that he “was unhappy about the government’s pre-empting the report’s proposals with its own plans for student support. But I was pleased with how the sector responded to it, and the overall positive response to the report”. Looking back, he notes the context of 1996 as described by Dearing is perhaps not all that dissimilar to the financial position of the sector that’s emerging in 2018: “The crisis in 1996 was the result of a period of very fast growth in student numbers, financed in very substantial part by severe reductions in the unit of resource (the amount a university spends on each student) for teaching…”
He had a “vertical learning curve – but an incredibly privileged experience, which was unique, and allowed him to shape a pivotal and influential piece of work”. Again, he recalls asking questions before meetings and during breaks to ensure his understanding was complete – and the support of friends and colleagues in getting the most from this crash course in HE policy. “I was 24!” Wright recalled, “It was important that I could say “I didn’t know about that” and get the help I needed to catch up and ensure that I could best reflect not just a singular student perspective but the many dimensions and views that cover the spectrum of student experiences”.
Alongside “professors and doctors, people with titles” he was a lone Mister. But his experience as an undergraduate student volunteer stood him in good stead. “I remember the fear of that first meeting and drawing on the same kind of confidence I had developed as a student volunteer working with tough 16 year old kids in Cardiff.”
He gained a huge amount from what he had learnt on Dearing – applying it first at what is now Student Volunteering UK on a DfEE funded project supporting widening participation through student volunteering. A spell at Mencap followed – before a return to the sector at Higher Education Wales, Universities UK, and returning to his alma mater Cardiff Univeristy as Academic Registrar, via Swansea University as Director of Student Services and Exeter University as Deputy Director of Academic Services. Wright is clear he got a lot from his experiences in terms of skills, knowledge and confidence. But one thing did surprise him:
“I didn’t work in the sector for 4 or 5 years after the review, but when I came back the debate was on similar issues – and similar arguments were being made. But what had changed was the audibility of the student voice – at least partially a result of higher fees levied on students, who now saw themselves as consumers. Cardiff University always had a strong commitment to the student experience and healthy partnership with its Students’ Union, but a lot of institutions in the 90s did not habitually listen to students. These days tools like the NSS have put students, their experience and perspectives front and centre.”