One news story says that universities are using non-disclosure agreements to stop students going public with complaints about sexual assault. Chris Skidmore says that’s an “abuse of power”.
Another alleges that PhD students taking to twitter to talk about getting headaches and back pain because they are “marking hundreds of essays in an impossibly short time” are being censored. Another says that Universities UK is going to develop new “value for money” metrics that appear to ignore the voices of students on the issue.
At Bath we’ve been discussing our student engagement policies and practices recently, and one issue that came up was about power. “Meaningful” collective student engagement is often difficult because it normally involves people without much power (students) attempting to be partners with those who have plenty. It also involves things like speaking truth to power, and students making judgements about universities rather than just being “consulted”. So a big test of any student engagement strategy is whether it works to tackle that power imbalance. And the sad thing is that the Office for Students’ new student engagement strategy fails that basic test.
There’s a plan
The strategy itself comes in four sections. Section one is about OfS “learning about the experiences of students”, so there’s a commitment to “continue NSS” (and consult with students on its extension), and to “listen through regular polling, workshops and focus groups”. It also says it will “keep developing our survey for postgraduate taught students” (without ever even once mentioning PGR students) and a strange commitment to “bring people together, including universities and colleges, students’ unions and sector bodies” without ever saying what that looks like and what it would achieve. I don’t get the impression that the regulator will understand the “lived experience” of my members from these shallow actions.
The second is about “working in partnership with students”, but it doesn’t feel like much of a partnership to me. This bit includes providing opportunities for students to work with OfS as interns (so much for rebalancing the power), “empowering” students to “promote equal opportunities and make a difference at their university or college” (whatever that means) and “ensuring that students and their views are embedded in our approach to policy and project development”, without detailing how.
There’s also a commitment to “review” the OfS Student Panel to “make sure students have an impact on all of our work”, but nothing on how it will deal with the deficit that that panel represents. Student representatives can derive legitimacy from their diversity – but this small focus group will never adequately “represent” the breadth of students’ lives. Student representatives also derive legitimacy from democracy – but applying four of Tony Benn’s tests, you get:
- “What power have you got?”. No idea.
- “Where did you get it from?”. OfS itself.
- “To whom are you accountable?”. Not to students.
- “How do we get rid of you?”. We can’t.
Hand-picked student panels are popular in the sector, but they’re no substitute for real student representation. UCAS (for example) has a “student” on its board that is in fact an SU staff member, and has a student panel that has somehow managed not to talk about whether UCAS media should be advertising private loans to students since the story made the press last summer.
Down with the kids
Section three looks at how OfS will communicate, which is interesting because two of the things that came up in its consultation on the strategy was whether it should communicate with students, and how it should do it.
“Key findings” from its consultation say that in a self-selecting web survey, OfS asked whether it should engage with students, and over 400 respondents ranked the statement that “the OfS shouldn’t engage with students directly” as their least preferred option. OfS says this means that “students are clear that the OfS should engage with students”, but this is a bit like asking people that attend “Score” on Wednesdays whether they think we should sell VKs, and then extrapolating from the inevitable result that all students love VKs.
The more important questions of what OfS should communicate to students, and why, didn’t come up.
What we will get is an “annual student impact report”, a “campaign to raise awareness of the OfS”, and a range of “student-focused communication and engagement channels”. I speak for many SU officers when I say that we are looking forward to the regulatory framework being set to music on TikTok. It will also “ask each university or college to supply us with a student engagement contact” (who will not necessarily be a student) and “review OfS’s main guidance for students”, which hopefully means it will rewrite webpages like this that erase anyone who’s not a home undergraduate.
Then finally, and helpfully, section 4 says it will “seek the perspectives of students whose voices go unheard” – but unhelpfully, it’s also the section that omits how it will actually do that.
So why isn’t this good enough? Firstly, we can probably guess that most students don’t know about the minimum standards/expectations they should have of their course that OfS regulates against. Other regulators connect with users to ensure they are aware of their rights – not just to promote themselves. So why isn’t OfS’ “engagement strategy” taking steps to ensure that all students know about the (minimum) standards and/or the rights that students have, and what students should do if they feel they’re not being met?
Secondly, we would surely want the strategy to say how OfS will ensure that “effective student engagement” is happening in providers – after all, the Quality Code says that providers should “actively engage students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience”, and OfS is supposed to act where “market forces alone” won’t improve things. Their consultation said that there are “mixed feelings” about OfS’ use of regulatory powers to support student engagement – some students thought OfS should intervene where providers are not including students in their approach to governance, but some “experts” said that might “stifle the diversity of engagement models”. Either way, the OfS student engagement strategy is weirdly totally silent on student engagement within the providers it regulates. And if the regulator can’t get student engagement right, how can I expect my institution to do the same?
Third, they’ve missed a trick when it comes to the involvement of SUs. SUs and their representatives have insight into institutions that are missed in institutional consultation responses. They are perfectly placed to give OfS assurance that institutions are making decisions with students’ best interests at heart.
We all use water, and that’s a “regulated market” too. OFWAT, for example, requires every water company to have an independent “customer challenge group” that provides “independent challenge” to companies and provides OFWAT with “independent assurance” to help the water sector to achieve a long term vision of “putting customers at the heart of the way companies run their businesses”. Why can’t OfS bring itself to have a similar vision (and some actions to achieve it) across higher education? Does OfS even want robust “student challenge” inside providers? Shouldn’t OfS be thinking about how it empowers students and their representatives? Would it really hurt to say “we think SUs are a jolly good idea”, or “here’s how we might help make them even better”?
Fourth, whilst it talks about involving students in policy and project development, it never really talks about how students will be involved in actual regulation. Why doesn’t it talk about student engagement in the TEF? It’s going to pilot encouraging students and SUs to “notify” it of “concerns”, but if an SU noticed a systematic failure in a provider when measuring it against the regulatory framework, would it feel able or confident to snitch on it to OfS? Some institutions are horrified at the mere thought of SUs responding separately to a consultation, let alone “notifying” OfS of a “concern”. And what if students or SUs know don’t about or understand the regulatory framework in the first place?
And fifth, whilst it talks about consulting with students on particular issues, the strategy is silent on the influence students might have on the priority OfS attaches to particular issues or the resource OfS will attach to solving them. Would students really have picked the issues OfS has picked to focus on over the past 12 months? And why does OfS never “close the feedback loop” on the NSS – neither students nor SUs know what OfS thinks about the results or what it’s doing about them at sector level.
The really sad part is that the UK has a reputation for student engagement practice that is recognised around the world, that assumes that students aren’t just to be consulted, researched or involved – but should be engaged as partners and producers in their universities.
When the new Quality Code was first proposed student engagement was regulated to a “supplementary practice” – prioritising student feedback in the Core Practices. Student officers like Xenia Levantis (then President of the Norwich University of the Arts SU) fed back that students wanted active partnership, not just “treating students as evaluators or informants” resulting in a “one-way relationship between staff and students”. The line in the Code eventually changed. If only that change was being acted on.