How to lose credibility and alienate students

The makeup of the new Office for Students board was released over the holidays. One name in particular grabbed public attention, a ferocious social media backlash and days of spilled ink across the national media: Toby Young.

There are as many issues with Young as there are articles he has published – the steady stream of eyecatching highlights on twitter have spanned Toby’s “lesbianism”, his comments in support of “progressive eugenics”, his flippant and thoughtless asides on disability, and his seemingly boundless fascination with women’s breasts. The man himself responded with an epic 35 tweet thread that attempted to address some of the accusations hurled at him, and by deleting one particularly egregious tweet from 2009 amongst 50,000 others. We could go on.

Though his friends in the Conservative firmament have stepped up to defend his inclusion on the board – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Anthony Seldon, Kirsty Allsopp… – to call his appointment divisive would be an understatement given the eight days (and counting) of media firestorm. Education Committee chair Robert Halfon offers a particularly thoughtful argument for rethinking the idea.

Though there is a decent case for OfS being able to draw on the experiences of the Free School initiative – which Young has championed – in understanding the establishment of new educational institutions, there are many with that experience that are not as easily criticised from so many angles. Rachel Wolf, for instance, set up the New Schools Network and has since worked in industry and as a Prime Ministerial adviser on education. Or perhaps there could be a role for Suzie Hobart, co-founder of the West London Free School with Young, who is an experienced education project manager.

Unless Jo Johnson and his department completely failed to understand that there would be a backlash to the appointment, it reads as a classic “dead cat” move. In other words, a grand political stunt to ensure Jo Johnson’s work dominates news cycles during an otherwise quiet time of year in the lead up to a rumoured reshuffle – although with Theresa May spending the first minutes of her agenda-setting Marr interview dealing with this avoidable issue such a ploy may have backfired. It also moved the HE debate on from tuition fees in spectacular fashion.

But OfS itself, and the board that will be in place to lead it, deserves analysis. The early 90s commentariat anecdotes can wait.

All aboard

In size and remit the OfS board closely resembles the board of HEFCE. Indeed six members – half if you ignore the Chair, CEO and Director for Fair Access – have smoothly transferred to OfS shadow board. Each is charged with monitoring the performance of the CEO, signing off an annual budget, and setting a strategic direction for the organisation in question.

Members will offer around ten days of their time each year in return for a small consideration – customarily, at HEFCE at least, waived by members with their own income – and offer their advice to the executive on the issues and priorities of the day. There is no expectation of board members having day-to-day input into the work of the new regulator, though before the appointment of Michael Barber we would have said the same about the Chair.

It is notable that the new board is much less rooted in the higher education sector than that of HEFCE. There is only one current vice chancellor (Steve West of the University of the West of England), and David Palfreyman is the only other with a current full-time sector role. In contrast, six members of the HEFCE board work in the sector, three as vice chancellor.

A student voice

Unlike HEFCE, OfS has a student as a full board member. Ruth Carlson – a civil engineering student from the University of Surrey who is currently running social media for the women’s football team – has been appointed for one year on an interim basis as a representative of the new student panel after no suitable appointment was made from the recruitment exercise.

She will need to balance her duties as board and panel member with her studies and work experience.

Though eye-catching – the appointment of an actual student, however talented Ms Carlson undoubtedly is, seems both temporary and arbitrary. How can one student – with a particular range of experiences and interests, at a particular point in her studies at a particular type of institution – represent the interests of all students without the kind of local and national democratic infrastructure that the National Union of Students has? Will the OfS executive support her? How?

And surely, once the furore about Toby Young has died down (and, seriously, we’re putting Toby Young on the same board as a woman in her twenties?), she’ll be inordinately exposed to public and media interest – what support will she be offered in dealing with this?

Not sick of experts

One thing that OfS has in abundance is legal expertise.

  • Deputy Chair, Martin Coleman, is a competition lawyer working with the Competition and Markets Authority.
  • Simon Levine is an intellectual property lawyer.
  • David Palfreyman is an academic legal expert, who literally wrote the book on higher education law.
  • Carl Lygo is a barrister and former vice chancellor of the private BPP University – which made its name by providing legal education.
  • And Nicola Dandridge, as I never tire of telling people, was Sunday Times Lawyer of the Week in May 2005. Her background is in equalities and trade union law.

One of the first appointments OfS makes will of course be another lawyer, to head up a new in-house legal team. Perhaps they’ll handle all the complaints about Toby Young’s behaviour? Or maybe a bumpier ride to regulatory standardisation is envisaged.

The OfS board can also draw on experience in marketing (Elizabeth Fagan), corporate social responsibility (Katja Hall), and a qualified accountant (Kate Lander). These appointments speak eloquently of the expertise that the new regulator forsees a need for as it becomes established. The mix is leavened with two very experienced public sector board members – Monisha Shah from the Committee for Standards in Public Life, and Gurpreet Dehal from the Independent​ ​Dormant​ ​Assets​ ​commission.

The big question now is how the new board is used and how it will function. Its internal dynamic will be watched carefully, as will its effectiveness in setting up and making a success of the Office for Students and its regulatory functions. And how much it follows the lead of an unexpectedly assertive and hands-on chair remains one of the biggest mysteries of all.

2 responses to “How to lose credibility and alienate students

  1. MOnisha Shah is also Chair of Governors of Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance and so brings experience from HE.

  2. It seems to me, at only 10 days commitment, most board members are simply padding their CV’s for some future honour’s list and will have minimal impact on any aspect of education. Of course, that’s not to deny their ability to splash attention on themselves in this fake news, appearance-is-everything, twitter controversy driven age.

Leave a Reply