How is the government getting on with alternative student representation?

Back in May 2022, you may recall that the Westminster government ostentatiously announced that it was to temporarily “disengage” from the National Union of Students (NUS) - ostensibly over a report into antisemitism in the organisation.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The no-platforming of NUS is one of many interesting incidents of apparently contradictory actions and opinions in the campus culture wars in recent years – but at least the promise was that engagement with NUS would be replaced with…

..alternative student representation, such as from the Office for Students student panel or from individual student unions, to ensure all students’ views are reflected fairly in conversations about higher education.

The Department for Education also asked arm’s length bodies, including the Office for Students (OfS), to take similar action.

In the absence of any announcement that the ban has been lifted, I thought I’d check up on progress on that “alternative representation”.

Every so often DfE handily publishes details on ministerial gifts given and received, hospitality, travel and external meetings. So I’ve looked at four logs – Q2-4 2022, and Q1 2023. The evidence isn’t encouraging.

In April-June 2022, it could be that the odd student rep snuck into meetings with Student Minds and AMOSSHE to talk mental health and even OfS to chat grade inflation. But I doubt it.

In July-September, maybe the Student Loans Company’s Peter Lauener took a “customer” along with him to his encounter with James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse, perhaps UCU’s Jo Grady had a student activist in tow and maybe one of UCAS, University Alliance, Million Plus, Guild HE, Independent HE, Universities UK, Office for Students, Ofqual, the Russell Group or the Association of Colleges smuggled in a learner for their meetings. I can’t see it somehow.

In the final quarter of 2022 there were any number of roundtables and discussions, including on the Free Speech Bill – but no evidence of any engagement with students.

Then in the early part of this year Gillian Keegan managed a meeting with Toby Young, Eric Kaufmann, Iain Mansfield and Bryn Harris over freedom of speech, and Claire Coutinho sat down with that group of mathematicians who got over-excited about a subject benchmark statement, but somehow failed to discuss the issues with students or their SUs.

There were meetings with the Union of Jewish Students to discuss the NUS thing, and Lords DfE minister Diana Barran met the Russell Group and Policy Exchange to discuss cost of living for students, but unless a student rep was sneaked into those encounters, there’s no evidence of engagement in that quarter either.

I’ll be honest – with a couple of notable exceptions, years ago when I worked at NUS I always found meetings with ministers to be spectacularly pointless. But at least they pretended in the olden days.

4 responses to “How is the government getting on with alternative student representation?

  1. “ostensibly over a report into antisemitism in the organisation”

    This isn’t the first time this particular blog has added a snide downplay of this issue. Yes you used to work there, but this isn’t ok.

    1. Perhaps less downplaying the issue and more questioning the government’s motivation for severing its relationship with the NUS? Let’s not pretend nobody predicted that it would result in a decrease in student consultation on matters affecting students – frankly, I thought everyone saw this coming.

      The suggestion that the government seems to have used it as an excuse to disengage from one of its critics doesn’t imply antisemitism isn’t a genuine problem that needs to be addressed – they’re not mutually exclusive ideas.

  2. It’s really disappointing to see that the (albeit limited) DfE/Ministerial engagement activity with students during the pandemic has fallen by the wayside. It was heartening back in 2020 to see policymakers in gov and beyond realise that their own experience of study was no longer reflective of the current reality, and to take small strides towards trying to understand contemporaneous perspectives. I know from be part of a handful of those meetings that hearing directly from students did begin to change gov decision-making and resulted in some small but meaningful changes for students.

    Whatever the context of the relationship between DfE and NUS, students’ experiences need to be properly understood in places where decisions are being made about them, and which will have significant impact on all/most aspects of their lives, and I have long felt there is both a need for, and the space for, a student advisory group at DfE with memberships from a range of organisations representing those in FE & HE, including degree apprenticeships. There are plenty of colleagues in the sector who could advise on how to do this effectively without raising unrealistic expectations of what might be achieved through such a group, and I know that at least a few have offered their expertise previously, but unfortunately without a ‘common enemy’ (i.e. Covid!) as a uniting force, there is very little appetite to provide any opportunity for current policy and government ideology to be challenges, which is remarkable for a department so fixated on issues of freedom of speech.

  3. So its OK for the government to not listen to the customers in their consultations and discussions? That seems to be your view.

    Yet we have an example via the USS of a ‘big issue’ around freedom of speech not being backed up by the evidence. I’d suggest putting students at the heart of discussions should be essential. It is what we try to do on an institutional level after all.

    Who knows it may even reduce some of the conflict within the sector and get different parties puling in something like the same direction.

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