Warwick SU recently submitted its response to the Government’s consultation on the role of the proposed ‘Office for Students’ (OfS) in its Higher Education reforms. Once again, we are disappointed to report that this proposal offers yet another flawed attempt to justify the Government’s attempts to marketise Higher Education.
A summary of our response is as follows:
- The OfS needs to fundamentally reposition itself to give access and widening participation the prioritisation they need. Widening participation is at the core of value in Higher Education, and needs to be considered compulsory rather than an enhancement activity for institutions. Access agreements must be retained and strengthened to ensure the sector provides the outreach and financial support necessary to students from a wide range of backgrounds.
- Wellbeing, and students’ experiences at university, are barely touched upon within the proposals. To disregard these vital components in favour of securing poorly-defined “outcomes” at any means is dangerous.
- OfS’s primary interest is in students becoming consumers, not in the “quality” of experience, or widening participation, or ensuring an empowering educational experience. This consumer-driven approach undermines student-staff collaboration and partnership working, and will come to the detriment of students.
- The Government have failed to define what a “high-quality” educational experience means in the context of these proposals. The OfS should strive to empower students to achieve to the best of their ability.
- The Government’s conception of “alternative methods of assessment” is much too narrow – their proposal of introducing Grade Point Averages is a ranking system rather than an assessment method. Alternative assessment methods should be designed to enable students to succeed on their own terms - namely by being tailored to their own learning types, who they are as people and what will best enable them to flourish.
- On the issue of Vice-Chancellor pay, we take it as read that senior staff remuneration panels should always include a student representative, and that senior staff remuneration decisions should be made public. However, there are wider issues which these proposals fail to acknowledge: for example, ensuring that postgraduate teachers are employed and paid properly (thus ending the trend toward casualisation and zero-hours working). This also needs to go for lecturers, cleaners and all other educational workers. That is what good practice would look like in the HE sector, and what should be sought for the betterment of education; high-paid staff is only a fractional issue on this.
- Mandatory participation in the so-called ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF) removes the autonomy of institutions. Allowing students to choose different types of education and study is hugely important, which is why any ideas oriented toward pursuing a national curriculum are flawed. We do believe that the OfS should be encouraging institutions to practice excellent teaching - however, the TEF doesn’t measure this at all, instead providing a flawed framework which fetishizes narrowly-defined “outcomes” at the expense of teaching and learning.
- Rather than being an Office of Students, these proposals instead force a prescriptive view of what students want without actually consulting them. The OfS should seek support from Students’ Unions on how best to embed engagement practices within its work - we can best support our members and represent their interests when we are properly funded and supported to carry out our work, and when our partner universities respect our autonomy and the importance of the role of the collective student voice.
- On the issue of “Free Speech”, the OfS should remember that it is not responsible for Students’ Unions, and thus cannot tell SUs what they can and can’t do. We are democratic organisations with a duty of care to all of our members, and will always defend our members’ rights to live safely and without the threat of victimisation. We are strongly against hate speech in all forms, and are disgusted by any governmental body which seeks to actively facilitate this.
- Academic freedom must be guaranteed in full. The OfS cannot on one hand promote the mandatory platforming of fascists and hate speakers, and on the other restrict the academic freedom of researchers studying something deemed “Prevent-worthy”.
- The OfS’s proposals for institutions seeking Tier 4 licenses will legitimise the rise of surreptitious providers who are seeking to increase international student numbers simply for profit. We are sceptical of the OfS’s ability and will to look after international students in a fair and balanced manner, and hope that the NUS and Students’ Unions will be fully involved with this.
In its current form, OfS seems more interested in marketising Higher Education than it is in improving the lives and educations of students, and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of education, partnership, collaboration, value and quality. “Value” cannot be measured monetarily, and “value-for-money” means breaking down barriers and removing costs - not trying to excuse higher fees for students. Instead, the risks that should be prioritised centre around student poverty, wellbeing, widening participation, race/disability/international attainment gaps, and students succeeding on their own terms (rather than by narrow government metrics).
It is also deeply troubling that the OfS essentially seeks to insularise students by removing their ability to organise through students’ unions, instead creating a one-on-one provider/consumer relationship. It goes without saying that any such approach is hugely detrimental to a holistic university experience – instead, it reduces education to a mere transactional relationship designed to increase competition amongst students, thus exacerbating the existing anxieties already contributing to an unprecedented mental health crisis on UK campuses.
The Sabbatical Officer Team