Martha Longdon, previous chair of the OfS student panel, suggests lessons to learn from the Office for Students’ first five years.
In December 2022 I came to the end of my time in student leadership, and of my four-year term as the Office for Students’ board member for student experience. I’ve been involved in student leadership in some form for most of the past decade but, having kickstarted my higher education career in 2017 when I was a sabbatical officer, the student experience has long been at the heart of my work.
As chair of the OfS student panel since joining the regulator in 2018, I have worked with more than 35 panel members, each with a wealth of lived experience, advising the OfS on policy development across the breadth of its regulatory work. Supported by colleagues in the student engagement team, we have reviewed and refined the panel’s mechanics and culture, strengthened its relationship with OfS staff teams, and advanced its activity from simply revising final policy drafts to becoming a critical friend throughout the policy development process.
One of the joys of this role has been introducing some staff and board members to student engagement for the first time. There is always something new to learn from the panel, and we are never short of colleagues keen to consult us on the next stage of a project.
The panel has shaped the OfS’s understanding of the complex issues faced by students, including their different perspectives on value for money, the increasing cost of living, blended learning and the experience of studying during a global pandemic. The panel has informed the OfS organisational strategy and its approach to student engagement, providing insights on how to implement regulation in the interests of students.
Recently, it has shaped policy on access and participation and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), both of which will now include a student submission, and the panellists’ lived experiences have informed what support and resources the OfS will deliver to promote meaningful student involvement in this process. This will help to ensure that these student submissions will not be standalone exercises but starting points for providers and students to work together to deliver excellence in quality of provision and equality of access.
Over the past two years, the OfS has seen two chairs, two CEOs and two directors for fair access and participation. Externally too, the political landscape has shifted, with six education secretaries, seven ministers for higher education, and four prime ministers (three in the last few months of 2022 alone!).
Not only will this influence the direction of the sector and the OfS’s work, but it has also shifted the location of the debate around higher education policy. While students and providers have been notably absent from key announcements and discussions in Westminster, conversations about freedom of speech, cost of living and the recent strikes have permeated through the media into robust conversations at dinner tables, in taxis and on heavily delayed trains in recent weeks.
Registration to regulation
Alongside this, the OfS is still undergoing a transformation of its own, from its early, substantial, role of registering higher education providers in England, to the equally complex matter now of ongoing regulation.
As it turns five in 2023, I have no doubt that colleagues will also be reflecting on the lessons learned. It’s clear that it still has work to do to win over hearts and minds in a sector still nostalgic for the days of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and there are several upcoming areas of work that will need to be underpinned by stronger communication and collaboration with providers.
Strengthening regulation around harassment and sexual misconduct is one example. It is a vital piece of work to increase student safety and provide clear and accessible routes for students to report incidents and receive appropriate support. A recently published evaluation, conducted by SUMS consulting, demonstrates some progress in this area, but more still needs to be done.
In December, the student panel met OfS colleagues to advise on this work. These conversations highlight the complexity of regulating issues that exist broadly within society but that manifest in unique ways in higher education institutions. The work requires decisiveness and sensitivity, but insights can be brought to the process from existing work on mental health, covid recovery and social mobility. Strengthening consultation here will help to address future challenges that arise as students’ lives in and beyond universities increasingly overlap.
Questions of quality
New OfS investigations into quality also offer the opportunity for a renewed commitment to involving students. Over the past five years, the TEF has set an excellent example of how to deliver this in a tangible and meaningful way.
The review of blended learning and regulation provided further insights into ways in which students may interact with providers. Translating this good practice into new ways of working could support the OfS to embed credible, inclusive, and proportionate student engagement in regulating quality.
And, crucially, although freedom of speech legislation is yet to be finalised, it is likely that, among other changes, it will bring about a significant shift in interactions between the OfS and students’ unions, which the OfS will regulate for the first time, albeit in a limited and specific way.
Positive relationships between the two will be vital to the regulator’s student engagement work and how it supports student unions to collaborate effectively with providers and hold them to account in the student interest. Navigating this new territory will be challenging for those implementing the legislation at sector and provider level.
It’s unclear how far student voices have influenced the design of the new legislation, but environments where ideas can be robustly discussed and debated, without excluding students from actively engaging with all aspects of their student experience, will require open and thoughtful dialogue and respect and generosity of spirit from all involved.
This blog post was first published by Research Professional on 29 January 2023. Martha writes here in a personal capacity.