Amidst a blaze of media interest, the Office for Students (OfS) emerged from its ‘shadow’ existence on 1 January 2018 to become a full legal entity. Also hugely significant for the OfS, though I hope less controversial, has been the birth of our OfS student panel. Made up of 13 students and student representatives, the panel will help ensure that students’ perspectives form an integral part of OfS’ work when we become fully operational in April.
Since I was appointed the chief executive of the OfS, I have been clear that effective student engagement has to be an integral part of our strategy. This is not just because it will be stronger if students are engaged in its development and implementation, though that is undoubtedly the case. It is also because as a regulator we need the input of those on whose behalf we are regulating.
This is true of any regulator but is particularly the case for the regulation of teaching and learning where the successful participation, experience and outcomes of students depend not only on what university staff do or do not do, but also on the students themselves.
So what will the panel do?
The panel will define their own agenda in the context of our regulatory responsibilities and priorities. But we will also be seeking the panel’s advice on how and when we should engage students in our work, and how we should implement our regulatory responsibilities to have the most impact. For instance, what should we be doing to make information, advice and guidance meaningful and effective for students from different backgrounds?
The panel may also want to take a wider view. What will it be like to be a student in five or ten years’ time? What opportunities and challenges will there be for graduates in the future? How should we make sure that our universities continue to help drive economic growth, social mobility and social change?
By looking to the future now, the panel can help us exercise our regulatory responsibilities in a way that will help ensure that higher education in England remains responsive, adaptable and world-class for the next generation.
I spoke about the creation of the student panel in my first speech as chief executive, hosted by the National Union of Students. Although the announcement was generally well received, questions were asked about what our relationship would be with NUS, and how we could seek to engage students without democratically representing them, as NUS does.
I understand the challenge. NUS is an important and influential voice that can have a significant impact. The panel is not being set up to play any sort of representative role like NUS. To state the obvious, the OfS and NUS play different roles and will undoubtedly take different views on issues in the future. However, we do share many common objectives, and for that reason, I am delighted that NUS President, Shakira Martin, has agreed to serve as one of our panel members.
The English higher education sector is rich in its diversity, and the OfS has a statutory duty to promote and extend that diversity to ensure that students from all backgrounds, and at different stages in their lives can choose the higher education provision that meets their needs and interests. To reflect this the panel has a broad mix of members. As well as student union representatives, the panel includes current undergraduate and postgraduate students, full-time and part-time students, young and mature, domestic and international, recent graduates and – especially helpfully – two young people currently studying for their GCSEs and A-Levels respectively, who will be able to share their views as prospective students.
They were recruited from a large number of exceptionally high-quality applicants, and we are grateful to everyone who applied.
Panel members have been appointed for twelve months. They had their first introductory conversation in January, and the whole sector can expect to hear – directly from them – about their invaluable work at our conference on 28 February and beyond.
The OfS is very fortunate to have the insights of a wonderful group of people with diverse experiences, backgrounds and views. It was inspiring to see the energy and creativity of the group and I have no doubt that they will challenge the OfS effectively as they take their roles forward.
The panel has a challenging role, but they will also have the opportunity to make a lasting difference to the experience and outcomes of students from across the country, now and into the future.
Members of the student panel
- Alice Richardson, 6th Form student from the North West of England
- Benjamin Hunt, President of King’s College London Students’ Union 2016-17
- Chad Allen, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, and former President of the Cambridge University Graduate Union
- Lizzie Pace, part-time mature student at Birkbeck, University of London and a former soldier in the British Army
- Luke Renwick, President of Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union
- Megan Dunn, Senior Policy Adviser, Equality Challenge Unit and President of the National Union of Students in 2015-16
- Ruth Carlson, Civil Engineering student at the University of Surrey
- Shakira Martin, President of the National Union of Students
- Shraddha Chaudhary, international student, and President, Director and Chair of the Trustee Board at University of Exeter Students’ Guild
- Sinead Brown, GCSE student from London
- Stuart Cannell, a part-time postgraduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University and a Student Reviewer for the Quality Assurance Agency
- Xenia Levantis, President of Norwich University of the Arts Students’ Union
- Zahra Choudhry, Vice President of Education at University of West London Students’ Union