By DAVID MYTON
England’s higher education sector looks set to encounter some turbulence this year in the shape of a new government-approved regulatory and competition body bearing the title Office for Students, aka Ofs.
Unless it becomes mired in bureaucracy and the exigencies of realpolitik, this new body could well drive a significant sectoral shake-up, with a re-orientation towards students and student outcomes – and for universities being held responsible for those outcomes.
The OfS – and the new regulatory framework under which it will operate – has been described by Alistair Jarvis, CEO of Universities UK, as “the biggest reform to higher education in England since 1992” and which “represents a break with the basic model of funding and regulation of the past 100 years”.
In a speech to the National Union of Students, she said that in England there was “a deep-rooted view of the history of universities as a community of scholars, and of universities as anchors in their regions and communities”.
This history and those roles were important and deserving of respect, she said, then added: “But where are the students in those descriptions? For the 21st century where nearly 50% of young people are going to university, and with the country needing highly skilled graduates more than ever, it is no longer enough to measure our success by reference to the institution.
“So instead of our primary objective being to secure outstanding institutions with which students are somehow lucky to be associated, our focus will be on securing outstanding students, graduates and postgraduates … for the OfS our primary objective will be the success and excellence of the student and graduate.”
It was important for research and teaching to be closely integrated, she said, and many institutions would continue “to define their identities and strategies in ways that reflect that close integration between teaching and research”.
She went on: “But this is the point: that focus on research must not eclipse students’ interests. The indivisible whole must not make students invisible. Of course research in universities is essential. But it must not come at the expense of students.”
The OfS would need to address the question of higher education providing value for money for students, and for the taxpayer.
“This is partly about justifying the tuition fees that you are paying through your graduate contributions, and ensuring providers are using that money efficiently, and not extravagantly.”
“It is also about recognising the value of your commitment in terms of time and opportunity: is the quality of your course, your learning and your wider experience at university stretching, stimulating, inspiring and challenging? Are you getting the support that you need? Will it help you get a job, and generally did it match your expectations? In short, are you happy with the contract that exists between you and your university or provider?”
As I wrote late last year, there has been much controversy in England over vice-chancellors’ salaries, with some being accused of accepting “inflation-busting pay rises” against a backdrop of new rules to lift the fee cap on degrees, “allowing universities to charge £11,100 a year for a new two-year course to be offered from 2019”.
While Dandridge didn’t address this issue in her speech, she has not been silent on the matter.
As reported in The Guardian, a new code has recently been introduced that aims to ensure senior staff receive “fair, appropriate and justifiable” pay. Universities will be expected to reveal how much more their vice-chancellor earns compared with the median pay of the overall workforce.
Dandridge welcomed the guidelines but said they were insufficient.
“We also need to see leadership from institutions in setting fair remuneration – people are rightly concerned by the level of pay, not just the process … in the face of unjustified levels of pay, the Office for Students will not hesitate to intervene”.
I wonder what governments in other countries – let’s say Australia – will make of these changes?