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Office for Students or against students?

The public face of a long established public body expires today when the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) takes down its web site domain [1] and all vestiges of its existence finally transfer to the Office for Students (OfS) [2]. This is effectively a merger as the OfS took over many of the functions of HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) earlier this year [3].


On the face of it, these changes appear relatively benign with two non-departmental public bodies or Quangos merging into one. The research functions, including REF, were shunted into the singular organisation ‘Research England’ that operates as a new council within UK Research and Innovation established from April this year [4]. Yet a closer look shows that the changes will have considerable implications and potentially profound effects upon universities, how they function and how they develop better access policies. There is a danger that the potential of more ministerial control over a single organisation, tasked with regulating universities, will damage the precious autonomy of universities. The drive to push the responsibility for widening access and social mobility onto universities directly could have perverse and confusing consequences. Students could be affected by a plethora of approaches and support that will be hard to navigate. Many schemes may turn out to be expensive and ineffective. A new cohort of students is about to embark upon their studies in the next few weeks and they will no doubt hear of the confusing range of schemes spread across the different institutions through contacts with friends. Expect complaints of lack of fairness.

The Office for Students emerges.

The OfS came into existence on the 1st of January this year [5] and, as for HEFCE, it was set up as non-departmental public body (NDPB) but differs in being under the remit of the Department for Education. It was established by the wide ranging Higher Education and Research Act 2017 [6] to become the main regulator of higher education in England. Bearing this in mind, it got off to an astonishingly terrible start. The Secretary of State for Education responsible, Justine Greening, lasted just over one week before she resigned from government in a reshuffle. She was quickly replaced by the ultra-establishment figure of Damian Hinds. Further to this, a surprise appointment of controversial Toby Young (Director of the New Schools Network) to the OfS board was met with escalating media derision and he did not last long either.

Its existence is partially explained by the current reforms of how public bodies operate [7]. A NDPD is described as: “a body which has a role in the processes of national government, but is not a government department or part of one, and which accordingly operates to a greater or lesser extent at arm’s length from ministers”. This is unlike executive agencies, that are expected to be “designated units of a central government department”,  and the NDPDs are supposed to operate at a distance from the ministers responsible.

Up to 31st March this year, HEFCE was operating under the 2012 Framework Document [8] originally established as an agreement between the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and HEFCE. The role of the minister was clear:


“Ministers are ultimately responsible for our effectiveness and efficiency, and we have distinct statutory duties, but we are free from direct political control.”

The OfS, however, has acquired  provision for an executive role under the public body review and even describes itself as an “executive non-departmental public body”, sponsored by the Department for Education [9]. This effectively blurs the boundaries of responsibility and opens the door for greater ministerial control. The OfS also notes that:

“The OfS’s powers and duties derive principally from the Act [6]. The Act also makes provision in relation to the issue of guidance by the Secretary of State to the OfS and for the Secretary of State to make grants to the OfS subject to terms and conditions; and to give directions to the OfS.”

Written into the 2017 Act [6], under 77 ‘Secretary of State’s power to give directions’ (1) “The Secretary of State may by regulations give the OfS general directions about the performance of any of its functions”. This is followed by a list of caveats and restrictions preventing the minister from interfering in courses and other functions of universities that must remain autonomous. The fact that this has to be stressed at all is frightening as there are many potential loopholes that might be exploited. The result is the generation of numerous ‘guidance’ documents that have already been issued and in time they will make for interesting reading as more emerge [10]

The fair access remit of the OfS means government can pass responsibility down the line to the universities at will.

One of the most contentious functions of the OfS is its regulatory role that is designed to ensure fair access to our universities. The Office for Fair Access was established under the Higher Education Act 2004 which also saw the introduction of variable fees. The OfS now oversees the various access agreements that all universities are expected to produce. More importantly the OfS must insure that these agreements are acted upon. Thus, the universities themselves have to manage better the access from disadvantaged groups of students. But the OfS has one major gap in its remit. It is clearly stated by the OfS that: “We are not responsible for tuition fees policy or student loans, and we are not allowed to provide funding to individual students”. The very thing that can be a barrier to access.

Who pays for this?

This means that individual universities must find the funds to support disadvantaged students in order to hit their targets set in access agreements. They are all currently producing these under strict guidance from the OfS [11]. A wide range of activities is emerging to support students with some financial support included. Indeed there are £millions being diverted to such activities and schemes this year. Some are also working toward “Expanding our capacity to implement contextual admissions” [12]. 

Two simple observations come to the fore. Firstly, most universities will need to be more flexible in their entry requirements and this must mean using ‘contextualised’ entry qualifications. In simple terms, students from schools in areas of low participation might be allowed to get lower A-level grades. A second strategy will be to divert university funds over to students from low income backgrounds or to those estranged from their families. Effectively this means diverting some of the £9,000 fees from the majority to those in more need. This is an internal subsidy made possible by apparently  better off fellow students bearing the load. However, many will be hard pressed financially as will their families. The potential for resentment is obvious. The counter argument for deploying funds from general taxation to spread the load across the country seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Some will see the current approach as unfair on students and families that are already paying through the nose. Equally, it could be argued that the role of the university is not to bear such a responsibility, and thus take much of the blame, for the government’s failure to address the widening social mobility gap at source.

Who oversees the OfS? Where are the students, Scientists, Engineers and staff?

Oversight of the OfS is formally through the vigilance a board [13]. Its composition might be expected to be very diverse and be able to appreciate the wide variety of activities undertaken by a university. To this end, the chair Nicola Dandridge is highly experienced and would be seen as a very safe pair of hands. However, the Board itself seems to suffer from crucial imbalances as it moves away from the HEFCE structure. Whilst some board members are new and others are retained, the obvious omission is that of a top table role for students on the board. Currently there is only one student, Ruth Carlson a civil engineering student at the University of Surrey. The student input comes instead from a separate student panel [14] and Ruth Carlson is elevated from that panel to being a 'go between'. However, her position on the Board is listed as “interim”. That is because a new Board position of ‘Student Experience Board Member’ was advertised in June and we still await the announcement of who it will be. This person is expected to “sit on the student panel and be expected to act as the lynchpin between the panel and the OfS board”. The president of the NUS will sit on the Student Panel and will no longer have a place at the top table. Equally, there are no staff representatives from the University and Colleges Union; a key body that should expect to make considerable input. Representation from the universities in general is weak overall and profoundly disturbing is the lack of experienced STEM representation. An exception is the VC of the West of England University who is a Podiatrist.

The dangers of ministerial interference and lessons from universities.

In this environment, the scope for possible ministerial interference is much greater than it should be. There are dangers associated with such power. The universities themselves provide many instances of what overstretched and overpaid leadership can inflict. One example comes from a Russell Group University.

The Vice Chancellor was heard to say: “if you are not with me then you must be against me”. This led to some thought and debate at the time about the implications of such a stance. The biblical reference (Matthew 12:30) seemed to elevate the VC to the status of deity. The outcome was of course inevitable. Those that voiced concerns and questioned were 'not for' the VC. They were side-lined and even removed from their positions. Those ‘for’ the VC, or just managed to project an image of being ‘for’, continued in place but could not be seen to criticise. It is a fanciful idea that in crucial meetings the cumulative intelligence of those in the room is used to bring about a good outcome. Indeed, great leaders try to use the talents of everyone to try to achieve this goal. In difficult times, this becomes even more important. In the case of the VC in question, the maximum intelligence that could be deployed defaulted to that of a single person and it might have been the case that this was the least insightful person in the room.

In the end, our political system relies on acting upon a mandate that is put to the electorate. The politicians enter government with this in mind. However, the danger is that the power that comes with this coalesces into a blinkered approach whilst maintaining the facade of representation. One thought emerges at this time. The current OfS structure gives more scope for direct ministerial control. This might become more interesting if a new Government emerges in the coming months and a new minister is handed the same potential for interference on a plate.

What can Universities really do to improve access and social mobility?

The original HEFCE aims were to: “create and sustain the conditions for a world-leading system of higher education which transforms lives, strengthens the economy, and enriches society”. The burdens that will now fall onto the Universities through the OfS might ultimately work against this mission and adversely affect all students. The responsibility of ‘Social Mobility’ will fall more and more onto universities when they are not well placed to effect the fundamental societal changes needed. Government can easily absolve itself of any blame along the way. Worse still, the strictures of the OfS might even work against the interests of many of our students and their families through promoting misplaced and expensive initiatives that might not work. The confusion about widening access, funding and finding help will be a challenge in itself. Students will be buried under a plethora of schemes that might lead to poor choices being made. It would be better if government reflected more  taking responsibility and on doing its job in promoting better education and attainment in schools, social mobility in general and widening access outside of the universities. Some universities will have many low income students but lack finance. Others may have the finance but fewer low income students. The imbalances in support will be come clear in time. Financing widening access for low income students would be more equitable if it was arranged the same way across the country for all and not a direct burden on university finances and student fee income.  This might allow fees to be lowered for all students.


Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics

References.

[1] HEFCE www.hefce.ac.uk/

HEFCE closed at the end of March 2018. The information on this website is historical and is no longer maintained. Many of HEFCE's functions will be continued by the Office for Students, the new regulator of higher education in England, and Research England, the new council within UK Research and Innovation.
The HEFCE domain - www.hefce.ac.uk - will continue to function until September 2018. At this point we will close the site entirely and all its information will only be available from the National Web Archive.

[2] Office for students. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/

[3] OFFA. https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/office-for-fair-access

[4] UK Research and Innovation. https://www.ukri.org/ and Research England
https://re.ukri.org/

[5] New universities regulator comes into force.
https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-universities-regulator-comes-into-force

[6] Higher Education and Research Act 2017. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/29/pdfs/ukpga_20170029_en.pdf

[7] Public bodies transformation programme 2016 to 2020. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/public-bodies-reform

[8] HEFCE Framework document. http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/hefce/content/about/Introduction/Working,in,partnership/Our,relationship,to,Government/frameowrk_doc_2012.pdf

[9] https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/office-for-students

[10] OfS Guidance from Government. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/regulation/guidance-from-government/

[11] Office for Students Access and participation plans
https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/access-and-participation-plans/



[13] OfS Board members. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/about/who-we-are/our-board-and-committees/

[14] OfS Student Panel members. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/about/who-we-are/our-student-panel/



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