OfS board appointments and the death of irony

In the most famous example of tragic irony, the mythical King Oedipus dedicated himself to ending the plague of Thebes by uncovering the killer of the previous King, as foretold in a prophecy from Apollo.

Through the course of his investigation, he discovers, to his horror, that it was Oedipus himself who had unknowingly committed the crime (while uncovering the late king as his long-lost father) and thus fulfilled the prophecy that had brought on the plague he so desperately sought to defeat. So it was that Oedipus, the anointed saviour of the people of Thebes, was, in fact, the cause of their despair all along.

Prevent and liberalism

The previous Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, never seemed to be aware of his own dramatic irony: here was a minister on a self-avowed crusade against safe spaces and no platform policies, for openness and liberal values that were supposedly being curtailed, by the rule of the sword (or regulatory powers, in this case) if necessary. This was the minister from the same government that oversaw a significant expansion of the controversial Prevent legislation, a policy routinely criticised across the sector for its self-defeating, discriminatory, and fundamentally illiberal character.

In his eyes, the tyranny of the snowflakes – because of course, students are both despotic and fragile, a sort of new-fangled tolerant totalitarianism – must be stopped at all costs. Even if it the path leads to becoming the very thing that you most despise.

Thus we arrive at the perverse scene of a government minister speaking quite openly about fines and other penalties for universities “failing” to uphold the values of free speech. Not very liberal if you ask me, especially if it is invariably judged on whether the Debating Society has invited a sufficient number of elected Conservatives to their annual disco.

That Jo Johnson became a harbinger of the very iliberality that he seemed so desperate to defy, then, was an irony that he was never quite able to acknowledge.

NUS no-platformed

Those of us hoping that the Minister’s departure to his own Colonus would signal the end of this drama have been sadly disappointed. The Commissioners Report into the appointments to the Office for Students (OfS), found amongst other things, a “disparity” in the treatment of candidates based on their favourability to the government. The right-wing journalist, Toby Young, was personally approached by the minister for the post. Most alarmingly for us, there was the revelation that special advisors had personally intervened in the recruitment process, to ensure that neither I, our president, Shakira Martin, nor any of the other applicants involved in student representation were given a seat at the table.

To deny us a platform, if you will.

And it seems as though OfS was isolated in the sector. My role automatically put me on HEA Board, QAA Board, OIA Board and amongst others, the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment. But for OfS and the busybodies at No. 10, this and other experience representing students was not only not good enough, it counted against us. Amongst the grounds listed for this intervention includes opposition to the government’s Prevent strategy. In other words, my colleagues and I were denied a platform, due to our consistent opposition to illiberal and invasive policies. So, it is thanks to our efforts to advocate free speech, that we have been denied a platform in the name of free speech.

So, in spite of the conventional wisdom found within sections of the press, that students are the enemies of freedom, it is in fact advisors from No. 10 and their hastily constructed no platform list who have posed the most recent demonstrable threat. After all, they are the ones who have denied a platform to NUS elected officers from the student representative place or, for that matter, anyone with experience of actual student representation.

Snow joke

This is a clear attempt to silence criticism from students and NUS. The snowflakes strike once again.

Had any speaker actually been no-platformed by a students’ union in recent years, I would gladly admit to feeling their pain. Luckily there hasn’t been. I am spared my slice of humble pie just yet.

Nevertheless, the silence on the part of the “free speech” warriors in the tabloids speaks volumes. The irony of this situation would be delicious, were it not quite clearly dead.

That our National President, Shakira, was graciously offered a platform for the OfS launch, is a welcome sign that those at the Office for Students have slightly tougher skin than the fragile snowflakes over at No.10. There are those who recognise it’s possible to be critical of the premise upon which OfS was formed – to look at the role of the market in HE – while sharing a commitment to working in partnership towards the betterment of students.

This will only be possible if the new regime at DfE can find the restraint and the will to respect the autonomy of the board. OfS has already had the most tumultuous of possible beginnings for a new regulatory body; its legitimacy can only be recovered by commitment to a genuine and open relationship with student representatives, including those with more critical voices. A welcome addition to the regulatory framework is that every provider needs a student at Board level so OfS must get its own house in order as soon as possible to retain its wavering credibility within the sector.

So all eyes will fall upon the new King of Thebes, Sam Gyimah. Will he ignore the words of the Oracle at Delphi, and so fatefully follow in the footsteps of his ill-fated predecessor? Or will he have the courage and the will to break free from the cycle of prophecy?

Only time, or history perhaps, will tell.

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