This article is more than 4 years old

OfS must dig deeper in its attempts to listen to students

Jim Dickinson breaks down the implications of the newly announced student panel that is set to inform the work of the Office for Students.
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

This is going to be a busy busy month for HE policy types, and if you have a day job that doesn’t involve pure wonkery, a glance over new OfS CEO Nicola Dandridge’s announcement that there will be a “Student Panel to help the Office for Students engage with students to shape and influence its work” might send shivers down your spine.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

We’ve been here before. Back in the late noughties, John Denham’s DIUS department launched a National Student Forum, some accompanying Student Juries and even a Minister for Students that toured campuses ‘listening’. Ostensibly this was all to “amplify the student voice”, but in the end did nothing of the sort – producing a short series of baffling annual reports that had all the impact on HE that you would expect of arrangements tightly controlled by Government but not given a clear role, function, evidence or budget.

Similar things happened in Bill Rammell’s time in FE with a national Student Forum. Its job, amongst other things, was to “advise Government on the … expectations of students as consumers of the higher education system; help evaluate the impact of existing policy on students” and “initiate discussion on areas of potential policy development”. Maybe it did just that, but if a forum of poorly supported and trained learners set out their expectations in a forum, and there aren’t any vice chancellors or principals around to hear it, did it make a sound?

Although the old excuse of having to engage with students whose unions that aren’t in NUS is ever present, at least this time, the panel is being created by a proper regulator. “We have been given extensive powers to act in the student interest…” says Nicola in the press release. “The Panel’s views will inform how … we set about our decision-making processes”. NUS is in an inevitable tizzy about structures that might dare to advance or support students’ views or rights that aren’t it – with a focus on the “student interests” place on OfS’ Board.

But when HE talks to students, it’s not the tip that matters as much as the iceberg itself – and here there are signs of positivity.

What kind of representation?

Ask any vice chancellor what counts as effective student representation, and you’ll get the answers you’d expect – SU officer partnership, behaviours, evidence and credibility. But if you ask not about the tip but the iceberg itself – ask what leads to student representation – and the answers from at least some HEIs are much richer. Clarity over the ‘hat’ participants wear in a room is crucial: are they reflexive consumers, reps that merely re-present the views of students or partners who understand the system? Investment in training and support for the participants also matters. And giving the reps enough funding to conduct decent research that arms those reps with evidence also makes for much better contributions.

Investment in training and support for the participants also matters. And giving the reps enough funding to conduct decent research that arms those reps with evidence also makes for much better contributions.

And here’s where Nicola’s announcement at least contains some good news. The panel will work out how “the OfS can ensure that its work properly involves students” (not in and of itself do all that work), “including those whose backgrounds or circumstances may make it harder”. And when questioned, Nicola was happy to point out that OfS – under the guidance of the panel – would “want to commission research into student views”. A panel focused on supervising some legitimacy, consultation and research is a panel much more likely to succeed than the late noughties efforts.

There remain lingering questions. Both the announcement and Nicola’s Q&A at NUS HQ tended to imagine that the “student interest” was somehow uniform, simple to determine and straightforward to advance. But ask any SU officer, and you’ll know that the interests of students are often very difficult to determine in a given situation or case. Current, future and past students’ interests often conflict. The interests of students across departments also often clash. And when the interests of students clash with the interests of an HEI, David v Goliath often kicks in. The role that OfS plays (and process it uses) in resolving these conflicts will be crucial.

There’s the question of the regulatory landscape. People unhappy with their water supply in the UK can probably work out that the regulator is OFWAT, but English students will soon have OfS, OIA, CMA, QAA and their own HEI all acting in regulatory (or quasi-regulatory) ways.

Simplifying and communicating that patchwork for students (and their baffled SUs) should be a crucial task of the new regulator.

Beyond the uniform

There’s also the question of how individuals might be helped by OfS. The transition from school to university involves a theoretical shift in the institution-student relationship; students become more autonomous and powerful and able to challenge and enforce rights. When Nicola Dandridge worked at UUK, their research demonstrated that there is “less awareness among students of their consumer rights when engaging with their university compared with other organisations”. SUs know that while students understand consumer rights in relation to student accommodation, they have little understanding of their rights under consumer law.

The danger is that as Government takes steps to improve student rights through the model contract initiative, students are not aware of these or indeed used to perceiving of their relationship with education providers in this way. OfS should consider how it can work with SUs to ensure students know their rights.

When it comes to data and TEF, the noise so far continues to focus on the role it can play in choice – which is a shame, given that the role data can play in bolstering voice in an HEI is critical too. There is an inevitability that features of TEF chosen by regulators or central government tend to be “blunt” given they apply to all providers. But few centrally designed exercises would be able to pick up issues particular to an institution with a distinct mission, an issue for a particular demographic in an HEI or an issue “of its time” for an HEI.

And as NSS is focused tightly on the academic student experience, the lack of available national metrics (and associated TEF levers) for the wider student experience risks leaving large parts of the consumer “offer” unregulated.

Crucial to the development of an effective, empowered student culture in public services is the empowerment of users by making data and metrics available for them and their representatives to use to create accountability suited to that service or organisation. This might include the SU requiring monitoring and gathering data on satisfaction with the size and facilities of teaching space given expansion, developing reports on placement satisfaction focused on nursing and examining diversity participation data within university sport.

OfS’ new panel might usefully work to ensure that a culture of local accountability is developed and evidenced involving easier access to data and support for student representatives.

Disappointed, angry and let down

Complaints matter too. OIA research suggests that when students complain, they feel “disappointed, let down, angry, emotionally drained, exhausted, discriminated against, depressed and sad”. Research at UEA suggests that students unhappy with the quality of masters’ supervision are unlikely to complain, for fear of being penalised in marking. This feature of the education “market” – where the provider of the services also sits in (academic) judgement of the consumer – is almost unique, barely discussed by OIA or CMA, and requires intervention from the lead regulator.

The focus on diversity is welcome. We know from other public sector markets that those with the ‘sharpest elbows’ dominate consumer advocacy and complaints channels. There is some evidence to suggest that some students’ unions have taken deliberate steps to identify their cold spots (i.e. Nursing Students, WP students) in this area but not all, and in any event not all HEIs have an SU.

More broadly given the complexity of the nature of the relationship the formulation of a successful complaint, or mounting of an appropriate defence in the event of a complaint about a student, requires professional support where students are unlikely to have access to affordable legal support. The panel should think about how it might enable SUs to become more representative and should think about steps that can be taken to ensure that all students have access to high-quality independent advocacy in the event of a problem, complaint or accusation.

What links all of these issues is a central truth: that whether students are advocating individually, on their course, at institution level or nationally- they need capacity. For years, government departments and vice chancellors have dealt only with the tip of that iceberg, in the form of an NUS or SU officer.

But it’s investment in the iceberg itself – capacity building and research either by OfS or the new or the new HE development agency – that will ensure that OfS’ work really helps deliver on students’ interests.

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