For the last two and a half years I have been fortunate to serve as a non-executive board member of the Office for Students (OfS), and although that might not sound a long time, it means I have been there since the start.
Since we first saw the draft legislation that was to shape our regulatory framework, it was clear there was a drive to make this new regulator one focused on the ‘users’ of higher and further education, not just the ‘providers’. That brought with it the requirement for a student panel, and the chair of that panel to sit on the main board of the OfS.
As part of a recent ‘lockdown clear out’ I came across some notes from one of the first meetings of the board nearly three years ago, where we discussed our objectives as to how we should operate – I had underlined ‘have vigorous debate in which diverse views are brought to bear’. This summed up to me why, as a board, it was critical that we don’t just hear the views of students through surveys or reports, but that the student voice sits ‘equally’ amongst the other board members. And I am very proud to say that it has, and still does.
Over the last couple of years, as a board we have immersed ourselves in many areas from the registration of universities and colleges to the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), seen multiple government ministers come and go (and sometimes even come back again!) and with coronavirus (COVID-19) we recognise we have some extremely choppy waters to navigate. Across all these topics though, each student board member has done a brilliant job of adding diversity of thought, reflection, and challenge to our discussions.
I went to university long enough ago to know that the aspirations, diversity, challenges, needs and concerns are different to when I was there. Some are similar (the recession of 1991/92 had forced interest rates into double digits making borrowing near impossible and causing unemployment to spike), but the cost of education, job prospects, concerns over wellbeing and value for money certainly seem more prevalent than in my day. Each student board member has been able to bring their own views, those of the student panel, and also the wider student community to the board discussions; sometimes these complement the thoughts of others, but they can also contradict and they are always taken into account and shape the decisions we make.
In January I also attended one of the student panel meetings, where the individual members presented back to the panel on areas they had researched. The key issues were vigorously debated and recommendations made to the board. What struck me that afternoon was the diversity, passion and commitment for contributing to changing things for the better, but also the clarity of thought, maturity, and respect for the inputs and thoughts of the other panel members.
But I also came away slightly envious of the opportunity each of the panel members had seen, grasped, and thrown themselves into. The experience they were acquiring, the relationships they were building and the purpose they were discovering in being part of change – these were things I only saw late into my career.
Although in less than three years, I think as a board and regulator we have made good progress, I think we still have a long way to travel. As a board we need to make sure we truly understand student views, and as education undergoes some of the most significant challenges and changes in the modern world the student voice needs to be listened to even more.
What I am confident of though is that there are brilliant students out there to help us all navigate these times, and that we will continue to ‘have vigorous debate in which diverse views are brought to bear’.