What if we were serious about students at the heart of the system?

It was the title of a 2011 white paper, but can students ever really be at the heart of the system? Gwen van der Velden examines how far we have come and what remains to be done.
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Many parts of the English higher education sector as we knew it are ‘on the move’. In this flurry of alterations, we’re tempted to focus on our institutions and meeting the challenges put in front of us. But there are times when it’s useful to take a step back, or in fact quite a few steps back, to 2011, the beginning of much of what has happened to the sector since. The white paper of that year was called “Students at the heart of the system.”

Where are the students in the system now?

Many of us were struck by the consultation on the QAA’s code of practice: the proposed removal of the student engagement section. Was a key principle of partnership to be wiped out? Around the same time, the halving of the NSS weighting in TEF effectively halved the student voice to make way for employability and grading metrics.

And then in January, the Office for Students started, a questionable appointment was made to the OfS board ‘in the students’ interest’ and shortly after, the sudden sale of a small private provider showed up the fragility of the current student protection system.

The change of direction is surprising. In the last fifteen years, we have moved a great deal on student engagement. When the sector organises itself, we invite the student voice: QAA’s board has students on it; QAA has student panels to get better insight; TEF panels have student members; NSS steering has several student members; institutions’ governing boards do too.

Student involvement is almost ubiquitous. But in the new policy structures, students appear on the way out: the communication with NUS was started by an NUS initiative, and is currently informal, but in fairness, OfS has technically only just started. Although there is a student on the OfS board, there is no formal student representation within OfS.

Its student panel is only ‘advisory’ and it has no students studying HE in FE or at alternative providers. So the panel can’t be assumed to be genuinely representative, nor has the panel been put on an equal footing with the voices of other stakeholders.

The scale of the challenge

Student representation should represent all students – that’s the conundrum we’re dealing with. Whether we like it or not, NUS does not represent all students. I am not talking about hard to reach groups such as mature students, part-time students or students at a distance. They are difficult to reach, but their interests are generally not forgotten by NUS. In fact, NUS has a track record of trying to get this right.

The issue is alternative providers, HE students in apprenticeships and so on. Those are large groups of students based at hundreds of providers. Some of these are small, specialist and so substantially different from traditional providers, and it may be hard to see how representation should work.

While we may be tempted to assume that small-scale development should best be left to itself, the students do have a right to have the quality, delivery and reasonable expectations to be protected. In practice, alternative provision is much bigger than we often think, both in student numbers and in a good number of providers, the sheer size of the institutions themselves.

But without students’ unions in alternative providers, NUS, by its constituency of students’ unions is constructed to serve the traditional sector and therefore not (yet?) representative of the whole sector.

We’re also seeing a shift from collective student interests to individual student interests. Where in the past higher education was seen as a social good, there was a collective interest in universities, and this was collectively paid for. In that collective view of universities and perhaps society, a collective, representative student voice makes sense.

But underneath the introduction of individual fees and debts, lies the view that higher education is an individual benefit, and this should be individually paid for.

In response to this focus on the individual beneficiary, I expect that we’ll soon see ombudsfolk appear. Ombuds arrangements and extended complaints procedures mean that the students themselves no longer (collectively) speak up. It takes the representation of students’ interests away from students themselves; instead, specialist staff represent them.

Through individualisation and the use of intermediaries, the collective student voice is – not even intentionally – disarmed. The control over the student learning experience, however, moves to the provider, be it the institutional provider of that student experience, or to the national policy level: providing the context for students’ university experience, through TEF accountability and regulation.

Ownership of students’ education is now definitely moving away from students themselves, back into the hands of institutions and politicians. Student representation comes to mean an entirely different thing. And it’s indirect. So why would we want to put student representation in OfS?

This is also a political game. Students, especially as long as students are organised in a collective, they may not respond as expected: see the example of the TEF boycott. TEF was launched ‘in the interest of students’, but was met with a student boycott of the National Student Survey. Within months, the NSS weighting in the TEF was halved. Like it or not, the NSS still represents the student voice in the TEF.

The organised student movement is at opposite ends with the government and most unlikely to support the policy changes coming through OfS. Those three factors: the AP representation issue, the shift from collective interests in higher education to individual interests, and the sheer complexity of the political game, have meant we are now in a place where the students are probably not at the heart of the system.

What should we do about it?

There are some opportunities that have arisen in the last few weeks. We have a new minister, but we do not yet know Sam Gyimah. In his first few visits to universities, he is making a point of talking to students directly. Of course it might be political positioning, but it is a deliberate positioning near students, which is of help. Still, on the face of it, it seems that this may well be a continuation of the trend towards the individual student interest rather than the collective.

Ministers tend to visit universities a lot in their early days and I suggest we extend our invitations as soon as possible – institutions and students’ unions jointly, illustrating the point that we continue to take the informed and organised student voice seriously.

Reflecting on where we’ve come from, I would say we have learned from engagement with the last minister, that working together with the students and their unions is likely to give the sector a much stronger voice than approaching policy discussions separate from student representation.

We were simply driven apart quite easily, for instance in the freedom of speech discussions, in the comparisons drawn between vice chancellors’ pay and fees and especially in the debates around TEF. There is a need within the sector for ‘keeping the community together’, or – intentionally or unintentionally – more divide-and-rule will play out in the coming months and years.

What if we were serious about students at the heart of the system?

I propose that it is time to ask some questions of the new policy structure: what will the real benefits for students of the new environment be? How do policymakers know these are desirable benefits, especially long-term? Let’s see if we can make sure the minister does not get cornered by the process, the politics, the governance questions, but let’s ask some questions in our encounters about what are the actual advantages for students that have come out of all these changes. Real student outcomes, if you like.

I would contend that if that question is squarely on the table, we may still need to think more creatively about student representation. As a sector, we are perfectly able to sort out all the related complexities.

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