OfS tried to silence us, say student panel members

Worrying suggestions of a "chilling effect" on the OfS student panel emerged have from an evidence session in the Industry and Regulators Committee inquiry.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Members of the OfS student panel have told the Lords Industry and Regulators Committee that they felt they were threatened with a “reassessment” of the future of the panel if they were to continue to express views on inclusive curricula that did not conform to those of OfS staff.

Former student panel chair and OfS board member Martha Longdon gave evidence, alongside former panel member Francesco Masala, to the committee as a part of an ongoing inquiry into the work of OfS. Asked to share instances of frustration with the work of the panel in shaping the way OfS regulates in the interests of students, she noted:

One example of that was where an issue was raised that was quite controversial in the sector. It was around inclusive curricula and broadening of perspectives in curricula. That view was raised. After that, I noticed a significant lack or lessening of engagement with me and other students in the organisation. Also, unfortunately, a senior member of OfS came to a panel meeting and provided some quite critical feedback to students about that with, I believe—and I have spoken to other panel members about this as well—a sort of veiled implication that if students were to continue to say things that were not aligned to their particular views, the position and the future of the panel may be reassessed. I noticed from that a dip in engagement.

Masala added: “It was not that veiled.”

Earlier in the day, NUS vice president Chloe Field reported what she called an “unprecedented level” of government interference in the work of OfS, specifically on the issue of freedom of speech. Field said that from her experience students do not see freedom of speech on campus as a priority (compared to, for example, the cost of living) and that it was remarkable that the regulator claimed that students felt that it was. She argued that OfS has been “forced into a position” where it was working “on behalf of government” and “it is not prioritising students.” NUS does not have any formal consultative links with OfS, but is approached on a case-by-case basis.

The students also suggested that the OfS student panel only very rarely had an impact on OfS policy – issues repeatedly discussed in panel meetings did not result in wider work. Longdon concurred that the majority of students did not see work on freedom of speech as a priority, and yet work on issues of interest to students (for example on value for money) never came to fruition.

From the student panel pages on the OfS website, it appears that the group met just four times since July 2022 – yet both former panel members were clear that there were many other meetings where minutes have not been published. And it was suggested that some of the published minutes did not fairly represent the discussions that took place, as draft minutes had been altered by OfS staff without the agreement of the panel. A dedicated staff role to support the panel is currently vacant, limiting the ability of the panel to seek evidence or input externally.

In general, Longdon and Masala reported frustration that the panel was unable to “rock the boat” in terms of OfS activity, with the impression that the student voice as expressed by panel members was “actively suppressed” when trying to counter aims and policies that appeared to be political in nature. Masala suggested that “we felt quite often that we were there potentially more as a tick-box exercise rather than genuinely providing active challenge”.

In her role as an OfS board member, Longdon experienced “small examples of hostility” when expressing student views, with Masala noting that “if you are a representative of students there will still be someone in a boardroom who is going to tell you what you really think and what you really want”. Longdon felt that the board did not do enough to push back on the DfE position that value for money should be assessed using only output measures, and said the panel had repeatedly emphasised the importance of the wider student experience in understanding value for money.

Both agreed that it seemed that political interests, rather than the true interests of students, often come first for OfS, and that “the perception of independence of a body such as the regulator is put in jeopardy when the most senior member of that body is a member of a political party.”

The Office for Students is unable to comment on an ongoing inquiry.

7 responses to “OfS tried to silence us, say student panel members

  1. Whilst this is disappointing, are we really all that surprised? One obvious demonstration would have been to build on the excellent practice from QAA and continue to enable student challenge and contribution through quality review methodologies. And we all know what happened there! Ever the optimist, let’s see how much scrutiny will be applied to OfS in response to this…

  2. I agree, it’s not in the least surprising. The Office for Students was never set up to be for students and creating the student panel meant that they could be easily ignored rather than put at the heart of the OfS operation.

  3. On a positive note, this is excellent training if the student panel members ever decide to become academics. Being ignored, over-ruled, patronised and blocked – always good to have your expectations low so you’ll never be disappointed. But seriously, what an objectionable, corrupted crew OfS are revealed to be. And really worrying as they extend their influence into regulation. What is next? Curriculum control? Political vetting of academics?

  4. This is getting silly now. The things we heard previously about the OfS were obvious incompetence at the level of the senior management. Now this is bordering on corruption and maladministration.

    I understand OfS has a staff retention issue – I bet some of those who have left must be able to tell a few interesting stories… That would be a must watch session!

  5. I know most OfS staff hugely respect and value panel members who hugely insightful and knowledgeable. It is shameful that this happened.

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