Student Representatives Really Don't Like The Office For Students But There's A Call For The NUS To Be On It
MPs are banging the drum for the NUS president to sit on the board of the Office for Students, but she and other student representatives have expressed misgivings about the regulator.
This is Shakira Martin, the president of the National Union of Students, a body representing 7 million students.
Since the right-wing journalist Toby Young resigned from the board of the Office for Students (OfS) over his controversial tweets, Labour MPs have begun beating the drum for Martin to have a position on it.
Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North and a former NUS president himself, endorsed Martin.
Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, then tweeted her support:
As did Chuka Umunna, the Labour MP for Streatham.
But Martin doesn't think much of the regulator. She told BuzzFeed News the lack of representation on the board suggests the OfS will "be ill-equipped to tackle the problems facing students and our sector, which run much deeper than the chaos of this appointment".
The OfS was established to hold universities to account on issues such as vice chancellors' pay and free speech on campus. Currently, its board is chaired by Sir Michael Barber, who has 20 years' experience in education and government reform, and is made up of legal experts, marketing professionals, a qualified accountant, and a former HSBC public affairs chief.
One student, Ruth Carlson, a civil engineering student from the University of Surrey, has been appointed as an OfS panel member on an interim basis for one year. But there has been much criticism that there isn't sufficient student representation on the current board.
Martin said: "The board as it stands is not representative of the higher education sector, with only one vice chancellor, one student, and not a single place for academics or other staff. This does little to win the confidence of the sector, or the students in whose interests the body purports to operate."
She said there had so far been little recognition by the OfS of the real challenges facing students, such as student poverty and barriers to access.
"Instead its current composition reflects a government obsession with introducing greater competition and further marketisation of our world-leading university sector," she said.
Martin, who has been appointed to the student panel for the OfS – distinct from the actual board – told BuzzFeed News the process of appointing the board was "beset with problems", and said when the higher education bill was passed through parliament, the government was mandated to appoint a dedicated student representative as part of the board.
Despite her criticism of the regulator, Martin agreed Young made the right decision to resign: "Toby Young stepping down is the best thing he could have done. With over 200,000 signatures on the petition calling for his resignation, the only way to move forward was for him to go."
She added that Young's "derogatory" comments were "wholly unacceptable" and said he was unsuitable for public office.
Other student representatives expressed similar views to Martin's. Ali Milani, the NUS vice president of union development, told BuzzFeed News: "The board in its entirety should be disbanded." He said the higher education sector does not have a regulation problem but a "fees problem, a widening access problem, and a participation problem, when it comes to BAME attainment gaps and things like that".
Milani said creating a regulator to tackle issues on free speech on campus would "distract from the fees debate, and it's an attempt to act as a market regulator to the sector, which is a cancerous idea".
Milani said the OfS board should be scrapped, adding: "If there is going to be a board for an Office for Students, how on earth can you not include the National Union of Students on that board?"
Ilyas Nagdee, the NUS black students' officer, was also critical of the OfS and said it "currently represents some of the worst aspects of the higher education sector", pointing out reports on the body's role in regulating free speech.
He said there had been suggestions from MPs and others about having a representative from the NUS, one from further education, and one from the University and College Union on the board, and so on, "because most of the people currently on the board appear to reflect a one sided-political perspective in some form".
Nagdee said there was opposition to the OfS among students. The board is "shaping higher education in the shape students don't want", he said.
Universities UK, the representative organisation for British universities, last month welcomed the OfS "as an opportunity to develop risk-based regulation for English higher education that protects and promotes the interests of students".
But it went on to add: "We are concerned that the prominence of short-term political priorities and the confrontational tone of some sections of the consultation documents could distract from the core task of establishing the OfS and developing an effective regulatory framework."
In a statement, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “Decisions on appointments to the Board of the Office for Students are made by Ministers. The Board of the Office for Students includes representatives from within higher education – including a current student – as well as those whose experience in other areas, which offers a different – and crucial – perspective.
“As well as the Board, the Office for Students yesterday announced appointments to its new student panel. The panel includes the President of the National Union of Students, as well as 12 other present, past and prospective students. They will have a crucial role to play in advising the Office for Students on its student engagement strategy.”