Here’s an idea. Let’s set up a dedicated office for students for the further education sector that puts their ‘best interests’ right at the core. We’ll call it ‘The Office for Students’.
We’ll have a ‘board’ but here’s a revolutionary idea…we won’t have any FE representation on it even though FE is an essential component of the higher education sector. No one will mind. We’ll also keep the NUS at arm’s length because we don’t want things to get hairy or political. Oh yes, we’ll also appoint Toby Young to the board because of his rich history of misogynistic and homophobic comments. He’s also unqualified for the position.
No one will mind. We’ll have a great synergy of purpose. People will love it.
But FE people absolutely don’t and many more besides.
From April 2018 the Office for Students (OfS) will be the regulatory body for the English higher education sector and the OfS will have no FE representation on its board.
This is both remarkable and inconceivable given that 1 in 10 people are studying undergraduate and postgraduate courses in over 200 colleges across the UK. Emily Chapman is VP of further education at the National Union of Students and she says that having no FE representation is “astounding”.
The FE college contribution to HE is enormous and supports many students who would otherwise have no access to HE. Many colleges achieve ‘Gold’ awards in the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF).
Quite rightly, as the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes says that, “Just because an institution has ‘college’ in the title doesn’t make it an FE college.”
No representation means ‘no voice’ and so the OfS will be in the dark when it comes to knowing anything about the student experience in the FE environment. Policy, people and politics looks pretty vacant especially with the refusal to sack Toby Young although the swell of public pressure left him no choice but to resign.
The OfS was established by HERA (the Higher Education and Research Act 2017) and is a regulator of the English HE marketplace. It is designed to step in when things aren’t right and the market is not up to scratch and this will be especially important in areas such as widening participation and equal access.
Sounds good? A body that puts students at the heart of what it is doing is a great idea. Except it isn’t good because the actual level of student participation and representation in the OfS has been embarrassing and it shows zero appreciation of the role FE plays.
You simply cannot foster a health and collaborative relationship if you aren’t invited to sit at the table or be let in the building to forge a partnership.
How can the OfS serve its purpose as student champion if student voices aren’t captured at every level? The answer of course is that it can’t act as an effective force for students by ignoring thousands and failing to recognise the high-class contribution the FE sector makes. Some think that the Office for Students needs to be renamed the Office Against Students. Former education minister Andrew Adonis says that of the OfS is ill-conceived and “is already drinking in the last chance saloon because it is failing to address the issues students need it to.” Shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden is equally as damning saying that confidence in the OfS is seriously because the government doesn’t “seem to be able to distinguish between an FE college and an HE provider.”
President of the Warwick University Student Union, Hope Worsdale thinks that the OfS should be rebadged the Office for Business, Bigotry and Marketisation arguing that the regulatory body was never going to act in the best interests of students, “In fact, this government (and, indeed, many before it) has spent years attacking and stripping away the powers of those bodies which *do* represent these interests - i.e. trade unions and students’ unions.”
There is little doubt that the OfS board is a “missed opportunity” for FE and the OfS doesn’t have student interests as its core objective. A board which does not reflect the diversity of its sector is no good for students. It is a colossal failed opportunity.
It is students who are best placed to know their experiences but a body devoid of FE representation is a body without a heart or a head.
Is the OfS just a body devoted to metrics, measurement and league tables which believes that quality grows on fees?
Michael Barber is the Chair of the OfS and dismisses the criticism aimed at the new body as “wide of the mark”. He defends the OfS saying that it is in its infancy and argues that “We are creating a bold and ambitious regulatory framework, which will give us the powers to ensure that students from all backgrounds – whatever, wherever and however they study – are able to have a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.”
Many doubt that the OfS will be as transformative as Michael Barber says and it is difficult to see how it can be if FE doesn’t get a look in.
A watchdog that faces only one direction with an eye-patch doesn’t see much at all. The Who’s who line-up of the OfS should include a representative from the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and until it does, the OfS is not fit for purpose.
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.