The new Office for Students legally came into force on Monday (1st January 2018). But what actually is it and why has it attracted so much controversy?
The Office for Students (OfS) is a new university regulator replacing the Higher Education Funding Council for England. According to the government, it will be responsible for implementing the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which aims to hold universities to account for the quality of their teaching.
It also aims to ensure students receive value for money, examine student debt and open the sector up to increases competition and will have a legal duty to consider the interests of students, employers and taxpayers.
Other issues that appear to be central to the OfS are the pay of university Vice-Chancellors and free speech. Jo Johnson, Universities Minister, has targeted both in recent months by announcing plans to allow the OfS to fine universities who fail to uphold freedom of speech and demanding restraint on the pay of senior university figures.
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of the OfS told MPs in December that it would intervene if universities did not tackle high pay. ‘We are waiting to see whether the sector can address this, seriously address this, and address the levels of pay and ensure that they are justified. And if they are not, the OfS will have to intervene,’ Dandridge told the Education Select Committee.
The OfS was created by the Higher Education and Research Act of April 2017 and sees the biggest overhaul in how universities have been regulated in 100 years. It will not have remit over institutions in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Who is involved?
The OfS is made up of a board of 15 members who come from a variety of backgrounds. The board is led by CEO Nicola Dandridge, former CEO of Universities UK and chair Sir Michael Barber who has worked in a variety of business and government roles.
Other board members include investment banker Gurpreet Dehal, Boots managing director Elizabeth Fagan and UWE vice-chancellor Prof. Steven West. Collectively, the board’s experience more grounded in business than higher education.
Surrey University student Ruth Carlson is the only student representative on the board. She studies engineering, is a civil engineering student ambassador and has been President of the university’s women’s football team.
What is the controversy?
Controversy surrounding the OfS has mainly focused on the appointment of journalist and New Schools Network director Toby Young to the board. Critics have argued Young is unqualified for the position and have highlighted comments he has made about women, disabled people, gay people and working class students through Twitter and his column in The Spectator.
An online petition has been set up to protest his appointment which has so far had 175,645 signatures. Labour have demanded that Theresa May reverse Young’s appointment due to his history of ‘homophobia and misogyny’.
Young has defended his appointment in a Twitter threat and has said he regrets the ‘sophomoric and silly’ tweets but others ‘have been deliberately misinterpreted to try and paint me as a caricature of a heartless Tory toff’. He also addressed his ‘lack of experience in the university sector’ saying it ‘doesn’t disqualify me from serving on the OfS’s board.’
‘Given that defending free speech will be one of the OfS’s priorities, there’s a certain irony in people saying I’m unfit to serve on its board because of politically incorrect things I’ve said in the past,’ he added.
Boris Johnson, brother of Universities Minister Jo Johnson, has defended Young tweeting he is the ‘ideal man for [the] job’.
In its failure to recruit board members from the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU), the OfS have also faced criticism. Labour MP Gordon Marsden, the Shadow Higher Education Minister also called the board appointments a ‘huge failed opportunity.’
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the (UCU) said that Young’s appointment raised serious questions about the organisation’s ability to look out for students’ interest. In a statement, she said: ‘We have this announcement sneaked out at New Year with Tory cheerleader Toby Young dressed up as the voice of teachers and no proper representation from staff or students.’
The OfS is expected to become fully operational in April.
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