Martha Longdon discusses the OfS's approach to student engagement and the launch of our new strategy.
As a former students' union president, I know first-hand just how important it is that students are involved in shaping their own experience of higher education.
And nowhere is this more true than in the work of the Office for Students (OfS), which has the formidable task of acting in the interests of all students up and down the country.
The OfS’s student engagement strategy is a big step forward in putting students at the heart of everything the regulator does. It commits the OfS to continuously learning about students, collaborating and working in partnership with them, communicating with them in an accessible way, and amplifying the voices of those who often go unheard.
Student engagement is, of course, not a brand new concept at the OfS. The student panel, which I chair, has been advising the organisation on a range of issues from the get-go. I also sit on the OfS board, bringing a student perspective to decisions made at the top. I think it’s important to say that my role has never been just to enable the status quo or agree with everything.
I have always been and will continue to be challenging where I see a need for more ambition in creating a truly student-centric organisation, because I believe that student engagement is critical to the OfS’s success: if regulation is to be genuinely in students’ interests, they need to have had a hand in shaping it.
I think the OfS knows this too. I have seen a real commitment across the organisation to making sure that student engagement is not just tokenistic or bolted on at the last minute, but that it is strategic and impactful. The OfS has come under some entirely reasonable pressure within the sector to live up to its name, but it was important to take the time to get this right.
How did we get here?
The OfS ran an extensive consultation process last year to develop this new approach. The student panel were the first to participate, and played a big part in shaping the rest of the process and the strategy itself. For me, the great thing about this is that – unlike with some work in the past where the panel have only become involved at 'final draft' stage – in this process, panellists have been involved from the very start, and can now really see the outcomes of their contributions. This is a really important step change for us and something I hope we're able to replicate in other areas of work going forward.
The team then hit the road, travelling all over the country to meet students, staff, academics and other regulators. Their workshops were attended by 85 students, including part-time and mature learners, postgraduates, students at small and specialist providers, and sixth formers. The online survey had over 500 respondents (including, I'm sure, many Wonkhe readers and contributors), almost half of whom were students or recent graduates.
We knew that this strategy would only be meaningful if it was designed with students in mind, and I think we can be now confident that the finished product truly is a strategy for students, from students.
What’s in the strategy?
The strategy covers the next three years, but some key pilot activities will be happening in year one as the OfS tests and refines its new approach to student engagement.
The student panel has done a great job in advising the OfS in its early stages, but it’s fair to say it was set up at speed and we need to make sure it’s still fit for purpose. So we will be reviewing and redeveloping the panel to make sure it provides the right kind of challenge and advice that the OfS needs.
Participation is the OfS’s first objective, and as pressure ramps up on providers to be more ambitious than ever on equal opportunities, students must be empowered to help the regulator promote fairness in higher education – and to hold their providers to account on delivering this.
Another key issue in the sector at the moment is student safeguarding and welfare, so the OfS will work with students to ensure that providers have effective support mechanisms in place when dealing with issues of harassment and sexual misconduct. And the OfS is also embarking on a major review of the admissions system, and will engage students and applicants in this process.
Finally, it is crucial that the OfS has enough of a profile among students that they can understand what it is and what it does. In particular, the OfS will work over the next year to help students understand how and when to use the notifications system to raise issues of concern at providers.
An office for students
Beyond these pilot activities, there's a lot to digest in the strategy. Student surveys will continue to be a key feedback mechanism, but there will be a lot of work to develop these and ensure they capture the views of as many students as possible at the right times. There will be brand new opportunities for students to work directly with the OfS as interns, researchers or on placement schemes, and opportunities for OfS staff to be mentored by, and to mentor, students. New student-focused communication channels will be developed, including a mailing list, social media channels, policy briefings and accessible guidance.
Throughout all of this work, it is vital that the full diversity of the student body is represented, and this will only happen if the OfS is proactive in reaching out to those who are often underrepresented or who sometimes go unheard.
The OfS has always said that it would involve students – past, present and future – in its work. This strategy now lays the foundations for how that will happen.
Students are experts in their own experience, and this strategy is a really important milestone in making sure they bring that expertise to the table so that the OfS can regulate effectively for their benefit.