In January 2018, when I was 20, I was appointed as the first student board member of the Office for Students.
I held this role for a single year – I applied to be reappointed to the board but was unsuccessful. Alongside this, I was a member of the student panel until January 2020. I have a lot to be thankful for, but I also have a lot to be concerned about.
Recently, members of the OfS student panel, including Martha Longdon, who held the role of student board member after me, gave evidence to the House of Lords Industry and Regulators committee about feeling sidelined as student panellists for OfS. Their evidence chimed with some of my own experience, and I’m drawing on that to offer some ideas about how OfS could act to address its student representation problem.
A casual chat
The advert to join the student panel was posted on Twitter. I put in an application and was interviewed in December 2017. After the interview I got a phone call from a member of staff, saying that I did really well in the panel interview and that they would like to put me forward for the board position. Before I know it I am on the phone to then chair of OfS Michael Barber having a “casual chat” – I had no idea this was actually my interview for the board.
I don’t remember much from the call but I do remember that Michael asked specifically how I would handle a situation where my views weren’t taken forward – I replied saying that as long as I had space to voice my opinion and felt like I’m being listened to, then that would be OK.
Come 1 January 2018 the appointments had been announced. There were full page spreads on some of the other panel members and an absolute storm about the appointment of Toby Young to the board. Although I had deleted my old social accounts and started a fresh Twitter account and it seemed people couldn’t find much information about me, I was getting heckled with multiple tweets a day and articles written about me online. It was a stormy start, and not one that I or, I think, OfS, had expected.
I hung on for a few months, then was unexpectedly told that my appointment was to be cut down to a six month interim position, due to an investigation by the public appointments commissioner about the appointment process. I would love to say my initial thought was sadness that I wouldn’t be representing students, but my mind focused on the life changing (for me) sum of money I was getting paid for my board position – £9,000. The call wasn’t very long, and when it ended I cried by myself in Croydon High Street. I had no one to call to discuss it with.
The conclusion of the public appointment commissioner was that the way the Department for Education treated me and other candidates for the role during the appointment process was “unsatisfactory in terms of customer care.”
Looking back, the position I was put in, with little to no support, was not acceptable. When you appoint a young person to a board, you need to consider the vulnerable position you are putting them in and the possibility of additional external scrutiny. It didn’t feel to me like people had thought about the risk involved, or that I might have needed more than a few calls to make sure I was OK.
Board to tears
You might argue that the storm around the appointments to the OfS board weren’t anticipated, and honest mistakes were made – maybe that’s right. But when it came to the actual experience of being on the board, things didn’t improve.
Just before the first board meeting I was introduced to a member of OfS staff who pulled out the board’s terms of reference and a paper on the regulatory approach and said “I don’t expect you have understood much of this.”
It was blunt, but he was right. I didn’t understand most of the document, but was that my role? It wasn’t clear to me how OfS expected to harness my knowledge – being an actual student – in the board’s discussions or what they imagined I could contribute.
During the lunch break I stood there by myself, confused. It was isolating. I’d never had trouble integrating in groups – I am chatty and outgoing. I was quick to realise that this was a very different kind of group to what I was used to. I remember being surrounded by people with titles, and no one speaking to me. At one point two members of the board spoke across me as I sat between them – discussing how they love to frequent the “leeedo” on the weekends. I didn’t feel welcome or that I belonged. I don’t know if it was my age, my class, my gender, or having not attended Oxford or Cambridge (that dominated the room), that made the difference. It could have been all of these.
Board meetings came and went. When I put my hand up I spoke, and on occasion I was explicitly asked for my opinion on something. There were conversations that changed direction completely after my input, but whether this changed the decision or actions of the OfS I am unsure, and not confident. The board was a constant battle, it was a room of people whose interaction with higher education was their time at Oxford or their child’s time at some redbrick university. It shocked me how limited the diversity of thought in the room was when it came to the student experience.
By contrast, the student panel felt like an open atmosphere where we could question and enquire – often lots of thoughts would fly around the room when the panel were in discussion. But there were moments when I didn’t have confidence that the views of the student panel were being captured accurately and reported to the board.
One incident stands out – a student panel update to the board in November 2019 said that that the panel was supportive of reducing reliance on NSS data in TEF because of concerns over gaming and low response rates. That didn’t match my recollection of the conversation – and the panel minutes of our October meeting didn’t have that view in them. In the next panel meeting I asked for the record to be corrected in the board papers – it wasn’t, and my concern wasn’t minuted.
If I am being kind I would describe it as clumsy minuting – but what worries me is the prospect of having a panel of well meaning and trusting students seeing their discussions and opinions framed in the context of a specific external agenda.
Throughout my time at OfS I was discouraged from speaking in public about what being a student board member at OfS was like. In fact, I was told strongly that doing so would be detrimental to my chances of reappointment. This seems to me to be of a piece with the wider culture there – I didn’t feel looked after, or listened to – in fact I felt pressured to stay quiet.
Challenging the status quo was difficult, and I didn’t feel like it was welcomed. I kept being reminded this was a “great opportunity” for me – suggesting I should feel grateful to be in the room at all, when my job there should have been to challenge.
I went in as a very positive, confident, outspoken young person. I came out cynical and distrusting in those who have the power to make change. You can make space for people to speak, but that is not the same as welcoming challenges and encouraging and supporting them to speak up. On paper I did have space to speak, but I didn’t have the power to say what I really wanted to say.
OfS isn’t the first or last organisation to struggle to create an inclusive board – in my case being a working class woman and a student, the gap between me and the wider organisation was especially glaring, but there’s some basic good practice that could have helped to bridge it.
First of all, the organisation as a whole needs to know what it wants to achieve by having a student on the board, otherwise it’s just tokenism. Senior staff should role model praising and welcoming challenge, thanking students for speaking up, and going against the grain, rather than expecting the student to carry all the weight of those interactions.
The people who support the student board member need to have knowledge of good practice in supporting effective student representation. Rather than a single point of contact I’d have preferred a more networked approach, including access to HR to deal with issues about appointments and remuneration. And OfS should think about offering mental health support (similar to what is available to OfS staff) to students on the board and panel – both during their term and beyond it.
Other board members needed some training in how power and privilege work in these kinds of situations, and some reflection and guidance on inclusive behaviours.
And specifically if an advisory or sub group like the student panel is reporting to a board, the text of that report should be signed off by the panel chair, so that those taking minutes are held accountable and misunderstandings corrected before the report is submitted.
I hope that OfS has reflected on what students are saying, and has begun to make a plan to ensure that future student panellists and board members don’t have the same kind of experience that I had or that was reported to the Lords committee. Because OfS has some work to do on involving students if it’s going to be a credible regulator in the student interest.
We shared the text of Ruth’s piece with OfS ahead of publication, and an OfS spokesperson responded: “We are grateful to Ruth for her work on the OfS board and student panel. While Ruth left the OfS board a number of years ago, we were concerned to read her perceptions about her time at the OfS. Student board members, student panellists and students on TEF panels make an enormously important contribution to the work of the OfS. We are currently reviewing our approach to student engagement to ensure the many contributions students and their representatives make to the OfS’s work can have maximum impact.”