The Tories are creating an Office for Students and this is what it means

It might revolutionise the U.K.’s Higher Education sector, but probably not

The Tory government has established an office to serve the interests of students – which all sounds great considering we’ve bee feeling heavily sidelined from any debate about us and our future lately. But what does The Office for Students (OfS), this proposed new body, mean for us?

It is part of Universities’ Minister, Jo Johnson’s, proposed measures to reform how higher education and research is funded and administered in this country, both by regulating Higher Education Institutions as well as by controlling the money they receive. Although unanswered questions remain on how the OfS would represent students, its proposed powers intend to put student interests at the heart of Higher Education – probably for the first time.

The proposed reforms claim to put student interests at the heart of Higher Education

Johnson wants the OfS to be created by merging the regulatory functions of the Office for Fair Access and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which promotes and funds teaching and research at Higher Education Institutions.

Basically, it would be promoting choice and competition among Higher Education institutions, assessing the teaching quality as well as widening access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.The OfS would be able to provide grants and loans as well as ensuring that Universities meet basic standards and impose penalties if they fail to meet them. All good things.

Universities’ Minister, Jo Johnson

It would also take responsibility for awarding University titles to institutions. This not only means that it would be able to grant private providers the power to award their own degrees but that it could revoke an institution’s right to call itself a University if it failed to meet set requirements.

Johnson says he wants to put students’ interests at the heart of how Universities are regulated in this country. By creating the OfS, Johnson argues that the student voice will be placed at the heart of how Universities are regulated as well as helping to make Higher Education transparent and accessible.

NUS Vice-President, Sorana Vieru giving evidence yesterday

Yesterday, Sorana Vieru, the NUS Vice-President for Higher Education, argued at a Parliamentary Select Committee that without a student voice the OfS wouldn’t be able to effectively represent the student interest.

The fact that students wouldn’t have any form of representation within the OfS raises questions on how the student interest would be effectively represented without students having any direct influence.

There are also questions on how the new body would be funded as the OfS wouldn’t receive money from the Government but from HE institutions, raising concerns on whether it could be unduly influenced by richer Universities.

Generally speaking however, the Office for Students looks to be a powerful regulatory body with the power of life and death over Higher Education Institutions, both by being able to revoke a University’s title as well as by controlling their funding. It could put student interests at the heart of University by incentivising institutions to offer a better quality of education and penalising those that fail to do so.

It is part of the Higher Education and Research Bill, currently being debated in Parliament at Committee level.

The White Paper, ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy’, can be accessed here.