We’re all special snowflakes now

If you hang around (student) politics for long enough, you come to know the features of a particular kind of cult. There’s a belief system with core ideas constantly rehashed, and a tight inner circle of activists, with a larger network along for the ride. Their key players pretend to not know each other. They spend their time not growing a movement, but influencing the “average”- through relentless reframing of eye catching incidents to fit a narrative. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Meet the Revolutionary Communist Party. Not your father’s commies, the RCP was an offshoot of the Revolutionary Communist Group, which had itself split from the International Socialists in the 1970s. Always media savvy, throughout the 70s and 80s it was interested in moral panics like Child Pornography and the AIDS epidemic, finding ways to reframe ideas and events into hardened concepts and tropes. By 1997 it was no longer cool to run a “party”, so it chose to propagate its ideas through a magazine called “Living Marxism”- a kind of Now! Album collection of familiar frames to true believers- along with an exotic collection of front groups. The “Manifesto Club”. “Parents with Attitude”. “Audacity.org”. The “Institute of Ideas”.

If you fancy spending a few weeks through the looking glass, it’s all there. Free speech, “not me speech” and a hatred of “PC” culture. Condemnation of ‘greenthink’ and accusations of climate conspiracy. Constant railing against “meddling policymakers” that interfere in our lives. Campaigns against everything from gun control to the banning of tobacco advertising and, most infamous of all, against the banning even of child porn. The alignment of the interests of the “white working class” with issues like this is where the ‘communism’ comes from, and it’s a remarkably prescient set of frames and techniques now in use by populists seizing control of governments and referenda around the world.

LM closed in the early 00s when, following an article that accused ITN of falsifying reports of Bosnian Muslims being held in Serbian concentration camps, the news organisation sued, won £1 million in damages and bankrupted the magazine and its publishers. But- media savvy as ever- the key players reappeared under the guise of “online magazine” Spiked!- and they continued to provide (click)bait to a media whose political economy had replaced a yearning to explain facts with a need to find facts that fit templates, and talking heads with opinions the public were already familiar with.

Today it retains its tight inner circle. Frank Furedi (now an academic at Derby) rails against emotional intelligence and awareness in education. Joanna Williams (a Kent Uni academic) has spent decades arguing against responding to student input. Brendan O Neill, who along with a student-ish deputy called Tom Slater specialises in Free Speech ranks and rants, runs Spiked! And then there’s Claire Fox- the moral maze regular famous for importing and then popularising the phrase “snowflake” into the UK, who mainlines on arguments about “offence” and “discomfort”.

There’s an outer circle too. Peter Tatchell pops up regularly to talk about being “No Platformed”. Columnist Julie Bindel repeatedly bemoans an NUS ban that never was. Munira Mirza- appointed by Boris Johnson as London’s Director of Policy for culture- was a “Manifesto Club” leading light and a regular rentagob when a panel needs someone to say that “Diversity if Divisive”.

There’s not many of them but they are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. Like that photo of graduates used in 50% of HE press stories online, once you spot them you spot them everywhere, writing op-eds about consent classes, or online censorship, or snowflakes. And they even appear on panels without making clear they know eachother- most recently appearing before the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ Evidence to give “evidence” on Freedom of Speech. There’s Furedi, Williams and Slater- spouting out the same set of ‘freedom of speech’ anecdotes to lawmakers that we read all summer- deliberately conflating issues of academic freedom of speech with all sorts of other things (behaviour codes, “PC” culture) to manufacture their outrage.

The Freedom of Speech Debate

The debate on Freedom of Speech is as old as debate itself, and I’ve written about the modern history of the debate over “No Platforming” and Universities before. It reappears every so often, cheered on by a press permanently fascinated by the young that might want to challenge the behaviours and values of the old. In the 70s and 80s the debate centred on race- with students concerned about the National Front, the BNP and the pro-apartheid attitudes of backbenchers choosing to protest and uninvite rather than sit back- resulting in an unnecessary amendment to the Education Act in 1986 (now being endlessly rehashed as new and decisive action).

But for the odd skirmish about evangelical Christianity, the BNP or abortion, the 90s and 00s saw the pressure off- largely because it was student leaders and students’ unions that were being proactive about the anti-semitism and outright racism of Hizb-ut-tahir flooding campuses with pretend societies and inciteful speakers long before the Government told them to under the damaging guise of “Prevent”. Work developed at the time by NUS, UUK and student groups like FOSIS and UJS exemplifies sensible, nuanced policy making- a salient commitment to freedom of speech, but delivered in way that doesn’t harm and guarantees access.

Presumably miffed by this type of liberal logic- and seeking revenge for their own student activists being mocked within SUs and NUS for decades, Spiked! then launched their masterstroke in 2015. Rampant marketisation had caused a proliferation of league tables and rankings that would fill electronic inches, and so the Spiked! Free Speech rankings were born- aimed initially squarely at Students’ Unions. In this world racist “banter” wasn’t oppression- it was merely something the new authoritarians found “offensive”. Choosing not to stock something or invite someone wasn’t a proud display or collective democratic decision making- it was a “Ban”. Sexual Harassment policies aren’t an escape from oppression, they are oppression. “We don’t need these people to keep us safe”, suggests Brendan at the Oxford Union. ‘We are strong’, suggests O Neill. ‘They are weak’.

The year that ensued was a particularly tricky one for Students’ Unions- and we felt pretty lonely as University Press Offices tried to stress that SUs were separate and VCs went to ground, hiding under some coats until it all went away. Never mind that there was almost no evidence of any SU actually banning anyone. The political economy of the news, the populism of Trump and Brexit and Claire Fox’s #1 Hit ‘Special Snowflakes’ kept it all going- to the point where our own HE Minister this year felt compelled to launch (and then regularly relaunch) a regulator for HE not through the optic of teaching, or value or money, or empowering complainants- but by announcing a crackdown on “Student Snowflakes”.

The choice of “Snowflake” as the term de jour for student activists is particularly interesting. Back in the 70s and 80s, the student activists and leaders were branded as aggressive thugs. But the rise of women and LGBT+ students involved in student activism and students’ unions- along with LM’s hatred of “PC” and its obsession with white, working class men meant a new frame was necessary. Women? LGBT+? This generation can’t be strong thugs- they must fit the gender and sexuality tropes necessary. They’re weak. They’re emotional. They’re hysterical. Their “mental health problems” are always in parentheses. Their weakness leads to “trigger warnings” and their “intolerance” leads to called “no-platforming”. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Free Speech- From rankings to regulation

Given the geopolitical factors, it’s not a particular surprise that the clock still hasn’t moved on. But what is a surprise is the enthusiasm with which Ministers, Parliamentarians and now even the chair of the supposed arm’s length regular- a man promoted as focussed on data on evidence- have bought this hoary old LM twaddle driven by a handful of anecdotes about Sombreros and Jazz Hands.

“We will stand for the widest possible definition of freedom of speech- anything within the law”, says Michael Barber in his piece in the THE. He recalls a time when he read “The Theory of Possessive Individualism” and felt uncomfortable, as if at some stage NUS was trying to ban C. B. Macpherson. “Admittedly, this had nothing to do with my identity” (you don’t say) [but] “my Pakistani friend… enrolled in a comparative religion class and suddenly found himself faced with questions that challenged his religion, culture, upbringing and, yes, identity. Uncomfortable for sure. And life-changing”. There it is- the LM right to be “offended”- via a crack down on people like the student activist he met. “A well-informed student I spoke to agreed that freedom of speech was important but added that it might need to be limited in relation to questions of identity because otherwise it might make some people feel uncomfortable”.

I’ve worked with student activists and leaders and sabbatical officers for over 20 years- in small colleges and large Universities, in institutions, SUs and in NUS. The truth is, I’ve barely ever met a single one with a real desire to censor ideas, or stifle debate, or police speech- more a desperation to avoid hurting other people’s feelings by displaying inadvertent prejudice, and a real bravery and determination to tackle the world around them.

  • There’s the students who weren’t prepared to put up with being groped in nightclubs any more- and had the temerity and bravery to launch social norming campaigns and behaviour codes amongst students long before Universities were shamed into joining in.
  • There’s the students who, when running their own shop, didn’t want to profit from selling The Sun. Note not wanting to profit from the sales- not banning it, or geoblocking the URL on eduroam, or confiscating copies from the local Tesco. They just got together and decided through open debate what they wanted to sell to eachother.
  • There’s the students who wanted us to ask other students not to “black up” at social events, or to parade around at fancy dress events mocking people of colour or people that are poor. There’s the student who wanted to know what to do about her “handsy” lecturer who women had developed ways to avoid over 20 years. There’s the students campaigning to have some reading from talented people and thinkers that aren’t white.
  • There’s the Jewish students who spent much of the 00s sick of having Hizb ut-Tahrir organising front societies to spread vile messages of anti-Semitism. There’s the LGBT+ students who weren’t happy that the Hockey Team thought it was just “bants” to play Gay Chicken on their way to fixtures. There’s the students who wanted to get through a night out without a DJ playing “Blurred Lines”, slurring down the mic that it was time for the “lads” to go “blur the lines with the ladies”, with obvious consequences.
  • And then there’s the students- not studying politics or philosophy or religion- who just wanted to get through the day without having to justify their own identity or existence. And the students who just wanted a heads up if their class was about to discuss something they’ll find traumatic, which without warning would prevent their active participation.

In the Students’ Union sector, there tend to be two cliched type models for student leadership. The first is the “head boy or girl” type- polite, constructive characters that dress up smart for University meetings, appear in prospectus photos, and run awareness campaigns. They are concerned for “ordinary” students. They trust power. In my world they’re called “the right”- but here let’s call them “passive”.

Then there’s the activist type- scruffier, louder, more “rebellious”; where demonstrations and occupations are the go-to tactics of any campaign. If they do turn up to University meetings they’re unlikely to have dressed up, and are more likely to disrupt an open day than contribute to it. They are concerned that some students- especially Women, LGBT+, BaME and Disabled- are not seen as “ordinary” whilst others are. They distrust power. In my world they’re called “the left”, but here we’ll call them “aggressive”.

The tendency is for both of the archetypes to accuse the other camp of the extremes of the cliché- not least on the floor of the NUS Conference, where the bifurcation of a stream of “Yes/No” votes on resolutions forces delegates to choose sides. And I’ve met hundreds of University leaders over the years who are frustrated at the tactics of the “left” only to be disappointed (or worse, thrilled) when they’re apparently replaced by the emptiness of the “right”.

But day to day, most student activists and leaders embody neither of the clichés. They’re just plain old assertive. They challenge authority. They point out elephants in the room and raise uncomfortable things at uncomfortable times in uncomfortable ways. They do appear in prospectus photos and they do go on protests, but they also present evidence and make arguments and provoke the powerful. They tackle each other’s behaviour. And they’re genuinely brave. Any glance at social media demonstrates this. Almost uniquely in the UK, we have built a powerful set of organisations and processes and people within our HE sector capable of delivering more local accountability, transparency and bravery within a University than any Office for Students ever will- and we should be proud of it.

Instead, it’s under threat- and some in the sector don’t help. I know- I’ve seen it with my own eyes- that HE types (especially in management positions) can get frustrated with the concerns and behaviours of so-called snowflakes when what they want is “student” input. It’s true that some students are louder than others. It’s true that some lose their temper. Some take up leadership positions. Some are more “extreme”.

Students above the parapet

But to imagine that the people putting their head above the parapet are unrepresentative or dismissable is dangerous. Remember that HEPI research– 76% of students express some support for No Platform. 68% of students support trigger warnings. 51% of students think universities should sometimes or always get rid of memorials to controversial historical figures and 55% think universities should be safe spaces where debate takes place within specific guidelines.

For the faux outrage of the RCP mob and intergenerationally irritated baby boomer HE leaders, this lack of faith in freedom, democracy and debate is baffling. But can you blame them? For students, the “Free Speech” revolution created through endless streams of internet enabled communication is cripplingly exhausting- especially for women, LGBT+ and BaME students. And when we tell them that free and fair debate will win out- only to find that a lie on the side of a bus can pull us into economic suicide and an incoherent, narcissistic predator can lose debates but end up as the leader of the free world- we ought to realise that our exhortations will sound empty.

Yet despite all of this, they do believe in Freedom of Speech- passionately. They just want everyone to be able to access it. They are sometimes inconsistent and hypocritical. They can look unrepresentative, but they represent something deeper. They are beacons for disclosure and carry astonishing burdens from students inspired by them. They are brave, not weak. And their emotional intelligence and focus shames most of us.

Of course they can tend to use baffling and exclusionary language, creating rarified environments that seem hard to access. How do you think they feel in University committees? Or watching Parliament? And they can be dogmatic, and difficult, and occasionally just daft. But the yebbutism of parts of HE in that year they came for SUs (exemplified in the Cardiff VC evidence to the JCHR) — full of dismissal like “where’s your evidence”, or “you’re inconsistent”, or “what about the university’s reputation” didn’t help- and now look at the mess we’re in.

Because the whole of HE is one big special snowflake snowstorm right now. There is no freedom of speech problem in UK Universities. But there is an endless, coordinated campaign of tropey stories where the facts are secondary to the frame — a runaway train that left the Spiked! station some time ago but is now firmly out of control. There’s a ministerial crack down, and a concerned regulator and a cross party enquiry.

Over the years, my real concern for the snowflakes has been their inability to persuade others. There is a comfort in shared language and frames that can lead to laziness about growing, or bursting, the social bubble. Like there was in the “remain” campaign. Like there was in Clinton’s campaign. Like there is right now in HE.

I’m not sure whether this pseudo-intellectual version of populism, being propagated by the likes of Johnson, Gove, Timothy, Adonis, the RCP and now Barber is being coordinated- or just memetically transferred as people cast around to capture the anger of the oppressed without looking like a Nazi or Trump. But I am sure that right now HE is on the wrong side of it. We need our own frames- crafted, tested and relentlessly promoted- and we need to get out of our bubbles and into theirs.

Ultimately, for the “snowflakes”, the intergenerational injustice is real. The lack of faith in democracy and freedom of speech is understandable. The understanding of mental health, behaviour and emotion is inspiring. They are who we wished we were then, and who we wish we could be now.

They’re not kids that want our help, nor are they always right or fit to lead Higher Education. But they are our colleagues, partners, comrades, customers, members, clients- our equals. And in the battle of ideas ahead, we’ll need them.


What do students want when it comes to Value for Money?

One of the areas that is remarkably undercooked in OfS’ regulatory framework consultation is the section on Value for Money- and without the wedged in response to Adonis’ one man war on VC Pay, it would be impossibly thin. Given VFM is one of the four big risks that the proposals are designed to mitigate against, this is disappointing- but given the wide variation in interpretation of what it means, not altogether surprising.

One of the oft used arguments against this agenda centres on deferred benefits and impacts. “Value is created when students realised their potential”, goes the argument- or it’s created when students “benefit from their education in later life”, or even “when they earn more”- all of which apparently render the measurement of VFM meaningless.

But the argument misses the point. Of course I only get “value” from a TV if I watch it, or “value” from a gym membership if I bother to go. But that doesn’t change the fact that unlike a gym or a TV purchase, University is a public endeavour jointly funded by the taxpayer and the student. Both groups have the right to demand standards in the service being offered. Both groups also have the right to ask that regulation ensures that their money isn’t being wasted.

And the truth is, it’s the classic public policy goal of efficiency that “VFM” is really code for in the consultation. Indeed, buried in the proposals is the prospect of OfS carrying out an “efficiency study” on a provider if there are substantial concerns. As any Health or Education Minister will tell you, efficiency is a funny old goal- people love it in principle, but not if you’re closing their local hospital, or restructuring their counselling provision. Trouble is, once you move to vouchers as a way to pay for public services, you sort of lose the ability to drive efficiency. And cutting fees a bit isn’t the answer. The puzzle for policymakers is really “how can we get them to spend more of what they have on teaching” but it’s not clear that an “efficiency study” is the answer to that question.

Cross subsidies and transparency are in the debate, with the theory that “shining a light on provider activities” will ensure “they are held to account”. The current stab at this involves “a statement to allow students to see how their money is spent, following examples from other sectors, such as Local Authorities publishing breakdowns of how Council Tax is spent”. But a bespoke statement designed by an individual provider will only justify and explain- how are students to know if £Xm on estates admin is too high or low? Transparency is only useful when it comes with comparability. A statement that student representatives can compare with others, using a set of definitions and agreed with HESA, would empower students to intervene in debates on how providers spend their money.

There’s also the issue of commitments. The proposal here is that asking providers to follow guidance from CMA on consumer rights will help students get the things they were promised. But CMA’s guidance focusses fatally on the course itself- which misses the academic services offer (advising, assessment and feedback, libraries) and the wider services offer (like Sport, Welfare and Social Space). If a University policy sets out standards for assessment return times that aren’t met, why isn’t this a commitment in the contract? OfS could require, for example, that any service or facility not explicitly mentioned in a contract may not be funded by student fee income. In any event OfS should ensure a proper link between the policies and standards agreed in meetings, the promises made on Open Days and the commitments made in agreements that students sign.

There are other aspects. Much of the material arising from the research into students’ perceptions of VFM has been aimed squarely at overcomplicating student concerns about contact hours. It’s true that intensity and quality matter just as much as the number of hours, and it’s also true that providing resources and support for independent study is a key component too. But students do feel that they’ve been sold some actual contact with actual people. And both them and their parents are consistently amazed at the lack of it. If the answer is a mix of metrics- quality, quantity and intensity- then so be it. And OfS should probably act to ensure that when it comes to “optional” pathways or modules, the option is for the student- not the institution who will often declare students’ first choices as “full”.

But the real issue that consistently vexes students is extra fees and charges. If a University encourages people to live on campus in their first year, students are amazed that they’re allowed to profit substantially from that- it’s a hidden top up fee. Where a module leader designs a programme whose core text was written by them, students are baffled that they’re allowed to sell them a copy. Where keeping fit or eating healthily is beyond the financial reach of large swathes of the student community because Sports or Catering’s an income stream, students are telling Nicola Dandridge that they want OfS to act.

And it’s not so much that other charges are hidden- CMA fixed that- it’s that students are amazed that so much that they thought would be included costs extra. Whether that’s printing, books, “optional” field trips, translation costs for a doctor’s note or student clubs and societies- the current incentives encourage charges to multiply and hide when students need the opposite. If Michael Barber is right that higher education experiences go beyond the course “and include art, drama, music, sport, volunteering, political activity and, not least, enduring friendships”, he might need to think about how students’ unions can be supported to get the cost of these things included or down- rather than obsessing about the VFM of students’ unions themselves.

And it’s perhaps this area of costs where OfS might make a real difference when it comes to VFM. It should definitely investigate participation costs and be concerned with all charges to students. It might require Universities to become just as strategically aware of the financial situation of its own students as they are of institutional finances- with encouragement to keep student costs under control. It might usefully require research into the total costs of participation in a course where curriculum design might help reduce the costs of books or equipment.

And given the focus on competition, an OfS framework which encouraged Universities to compete on what was included in their fee would make a real difference.

(Not) securing student success?

Originally published on wonkhe.com

On first reading of the thrillingly titled “Securing student success: risk-based regulation for teaching excellence, social mobility and informed choice in higher education”, you’ve got to wonder how DfE officials spent their youth. “The document is aimed at students”, opines the four page guide to navigating the 177 pages; “we are especially interested in the views of students (prospective, current, and former), on whose behalf OfS will regulate, and providers, who will be subject to its regulation”.

They may well be interested in the student view — but in the unlikely event that any actual student gets through the turgid text, I doubt they’ll find much in there that accords with their own perceptions of value for money, power imbalances and educational improvement.

The dead cat

In headline terms, the freedom of speech focus has been effectively deployed in the press as a dead cat on the table of fees and funding. I’ve written before here about both the history of this moral panic, and the pointlessness of proposals to this end. Of interest to us in the consultation is the actual proposal, and it’s not surprising to learn that there doesn’t really appear to be one.

Presumably mindful that a document like this can’t actually lie, a wedge of text marked “Box D” is forced to reference that it has been the duty of HEIs since 1986 to secure freedom of speech. “Going further” merely ensures that private providers will now have to spend their shareholders’ cash on demonstrating that a visit by Milo Yiannopoulos would pose a public order problem.

It then uses a neat trick- conflating HERA with the ’86 act into a generic “our legislation” frame to rehearse the same old free speech stuff we’ve heard before. The text makes it clear that there’s “no place” for “extremist” views, without really setting out who gets to define “extreme.” Bizarrely, this is reinforced by a quote from Orwell on liberty.

In setting out how OfS will enforce what will be converted from ’86 act to “public interest governance condition”, the document suggests that OfS will use something called “indicative behaviours” to assess compliance. “With regard to free speech”, it suggests, “one behaviour that would indicate compliance would be to have a freedom of speech code of practice… setting out the procedures which members, students and employees should follow in relation to meetings or activities, and the conduct which is expected of those individuals”.

That’s good news for both HEIs and SUs- the ’86 act has required a Code of Practice for over thirty years, and almost all SUs have one already — given their responsibilities under charity law, and guidance from NUS and UUK. Of course, none of this will stop an SU declining to invite a racist to an SU meeting if students democratically decide that this is what they want to do.

Reasons to be miserable

From a student perspective, it is entirely possible to be quite miserable about the other provisions in the framework on offer. Take data. “The OfS will work … to coordinate, collect and disseminate information for students to help them make the choices that are right for them, to drive competition around student outcomes, such as graduate employability, and to support and raise the profile of mechanisms that allow student transfer”. Note the obsessive focus on the use of data for student as chooser rather than user of HE- using exit rather than voice as power. Data that might aid a student representative in arguing for better facilities or programme improvements is curiously missing.

Or take contracts. Back in September Jo Johnson appeared to be promising to put content meat on the bones of contracts with students — to include things like facilities and contact hours- but the consultation appears to have watered this down significantly, offering only to ensure providers “have given due regard to relevant guidance as to how to comply with consumer law”. The text rightly recognises that “there is not an equal power balance in relationships between students and providers”, but then offers little to redress the imbalance and no sense of how a student might be supported to enforce these legal rights if let down.

There’s material on “Value for Money” which also doesn’t address student concerns — what is and isn’t included in the fee — and instead addresses Andrew Adonis’ concern about VC pay. There’s a paucity of material on access — rehearsing what we already know about access agreements changing their name and focussing on achievement and progression. And when it comes to the baffling patchwork of regulation that students will need to navigate when they experience an issue, it just says that “getting the right relationship between the CMA, the OIA and the OfS will also be important to ensure that, in the area of consumer law, students understand and are able to exercise their rights”.

You don’t say- although what they don’t say is that without a decent Students’ Union, students in FE and “alternative” providers haven’t got a hope of independent advocacy if something goes wrong.

Washed up

But perhaps the most revealing and dispiriting bit of the consultation is where it attempts to look at the HE market and identify where choosing an undergraduate course is different to buying a washing machine. “There are almost never repeat ‘purchases’ of the same type of higher educational courses by an individual student … many of the primary benefits to the student… are not received immediately; they are spread out over their lifetime…. [this] exposes the market to distortions such as time inconsistency… and temporal discounting”.

This is all true, and it’s why an “Office for Students” ought to be important. It could use Barber’s “Collective Choice and Voice” model to empower current students — giving power to individuals and their representatives to get redress when treated badly, and giving data and access to fuel improvements. It could drive a culture of representation and voice — at individual level right through to ministerial level — in recognition of the clear difference between white goods and degree courses. But while it nails the problems, it falls significantly short of any decent solutions — and couldn’t feel more distant from students’ day to day concerns if it tried.

OfS must dig deeper in its attempts to listen to students

This is going to be a busy busy month for HE policy types, and if you have a day job that doesn’t involve pure wonkery, a glance over new OfS CEO Nicola Dandridge’s announcement that there will be a “Student Panel to help the Office for Students engage with students to shape and influence its work” might send shivers down your spine.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

We’ve been here before. Back in the late noughties, John Denham’s DIUS department launched a National Student Forum, some accompanying Student Juries and even a Minister for Students that toured campuses ‘listening’. Ostensibly this was all to “amplify the student voice”, but in the end did nothing of the sort – producing a short series of baffling annual reports that had all the impact on HE that you would expect of arrangements tightly controlled by Government but not given a clear role, function, evidence or budget.

Similar things happened in Bill Rammell’s time in FE with a national Student Forum. Its job, amongst other things, was to “advise Government on the … expectations of students as consumers of the higher education system; help evaluate the impact of existing policy on students” and “initiate discussion on areas of potential policy development”. Maybe it did just that, but if a forum of poorly supported and trained learners set out their expectations in a forum, and there aren’t any vice chancellors or principals around to hear it, did it make a sound?

Although the old excuse of having to engage with students whose unions that aren’t in NUS is ever present, at least this time, the panel is being created by a proper regulator. “We have been given extensive powers to act in the student interest…” says Nicola in the press release. “The Panel’s views will inform how … we set about our decision-making processes”. NUS is in an inevitable tizzy about structures that might dare to advance or support students’ views or rights that aren’t it – with a focus on the “student interests” place on OfS’ Board.

But when HE talks to students, it’s not the tip that matters as much as the iceberg itself – and here there are signs of positivity.

What kind of representation?

Ask any vice chancellor what counts as effective student representation, and you’ll get the answers you’d expect – SU officer partnership, behaviours, evidence and credibility. But if you ask not about the tip but the iceberg itself – ask what leads to student representation – and the answers from at least some HEIs are much richer. Clarity over the ‘hat’ participants wear in a room is crucial: are they reflexive consumers, reps that merely re-present the views of students or partners who understand the system? Investment in training and support for the participants also matters. And giving the reps enough funding to conduct decent research that arms those reps with evidence also makes for much better contributions.

Investment in training and support for the participants also matters. And giving the reps enough funding to conduct decent research that arms those reps with evidence also makes for much better contributions.

And here’s where Nicola’s announcement at least contains some good news. The panel will work out how “the OfS can ensure that its work properly involves students” (not in and of itself do all that work), “including those whose backgrounds or circumstances may make it harder”. And when questioned, Nicola was happy to point out that OfS – under the guidance of the panel – would “want to commission research into student views”. A panel focused on supervising some legitimacy, consultation and research is a panel much more likely to succeed than the late noughties efforts.

There remain lingering questions. Both the announcement and Nicola’s Q&A at NUS HQ tended to imagine that the “student interest” was somehow uniform, simple to determine and straightforward to advance. But ask any SU officer, and you’ll know that the interestsof students are often very difficult to determine in a given situation or case. Current, future and past students’ interests often conflict. The interests of students across departments also often clash. And when the interests of students clash with the interests of an HEI, David v Goliath often kicks in. The role that OfS plays (and process it uses) in resolving these conflicts will be crucial.

There’s the question of the regulatory landscape. People unhappy with their water supply in the UK can probably work out that the regulator is OFWAT, but English students will soon have OfS, OIA, CMA, QAA and their own HEI all acting in regulatory (or quasi-regulatory) ways.

Simplifying and communicating that patchwork for students (and their baffled SUs) should be a crucial task of the new regulator.

Beyond the uniform

There’s also the question of how individuals might be helped by OfS. The transition from school to university involves a theoretical shift in the institution-student relationship; students become more autonomous and powerful and able to challenge and enforce rights. When Nicola Dandridge worked at UUK, their research demonstrated that there is “less awareness among students of their consumer rights when engaging with their university compared with other organisations”. SUs know that while students understand consumer rights in relation to student accommodation, they have little understanding of their rights under consumer law.

The danger is that as Government takes steps to improve student rights through the model contract initiative, students are not aware of these or indeed used to perceiving of their relationship with education providers in this way. OfS should consider how it can work with SUs to ensure students know their rights.

When it comes to data and TEF, the noise so far continues to focus on the role it can play in choice – which is a shame, given that the role data can play in bolstering voice in an HEI is critical too. There is an inevitability that features of TEF chosen by regulators or central government tend to be “blunt” given they apply to all providers. But few centrally designed exercises would be able to pick up issues particular to an institution with a distinct mission, an issue for a particular demographic in an HEI or an issue “of its time” for an HEI.

And as NSS is focused tightly on the academic student experience, the lack of available national metrics (and associated TEF levers) for the wider student experience risks leaving large parts of the consumer “offer” unregulated.

Crucial to the development of an effective, empowered student culture in public services is the empowerment of users by making data and metrics available for them and their representatives to use to create accountability suited to that service or organisation. This might include the SU requiring monitoring and gathering data on satisfaction with the size and facilities of teaching space given expansion, developing reports on placement satisfaction focused on nursing and examining diversity participation data within university sport.

OfS’ new panel might usefully work to ensure that a culture of local accountability is developed and evidenced involving easier access to data and support for student representatives.

Disappointed, angry and let down

Complaints matter too. OIA research suggests that when students complain, they feel “disappointed, let down, angry, emotionally drained, exhausted, discriminated against, depressed and sad”. Research at UEA suggests that students unhappy with the quality of masters’ supervision are unlikely to complain, for fear of being penalised in marking. This feature of the education “market” – where the provider of the services also sits in (academic) judgement of the consumer – is almost unique, barely discussed by OIA or CMA, and requires intervention from the lead regulator.

The focus on diversity is welcome. We know from other public sector markets that those with the ‘sharpest elbows’ dominate consumer advocacy and complaints channels. There is some evidence to suggest that some students’ unions have taken deliberate steps to identify their cold spots (i.e. Nursing Students, WP students) in this area but not all, and in any event not all HEIs have an SU.

More broadly given the complexity of the nature of the relationship the formulation of a successful complaint, or mounting of an appropriate defence in the event of a complaint about a student, requires professional support where students are unlikely to have access to affordable legal support. The panel should think about how it might enable SUs to become more representative and should think about steps that can be taken to ensure that all students have access to high-quality independent advocacy in the event of a problem, complaint or accusation.

What links all of these issues is a central truth: that whether students are advocating individually, on their course, at institution level or nationally- they need capacity. For years, government departments and vice chancellors have dealt only with the tip of that iceberg, in the form of an NUS or SU officer.

But it’s investment in the iceberg itself – capacity building and research either by OfS or the new or the new HE development agency – that will ensure that OfS’ work really helps deliver on students’ interests.

Getting behind the headlines of NSS 2017

The dominant press narrative surrounding this year’s NSS results centred on NUS’ boycott of the survey- which depending on your viewpoint was either a resounding success in disrupting a tool of neoliberalism, or as dangerous exercise that both revealed the lack of influence NUS has on its own membership, whilst robbing students of much evidence to bolster arguments about the need for improvement.

But behind the headlines other narratives have played out. One of the key stories from the results wasn’t about response rates or boycotts in the Russell Group- that is noise. The signal is that more than 1 in 4 students aren’t happy with the way they’re being assessed or the feedback they get. The sector’s continued failure to get a grip on this basic and crucial component of provision is shocking. Almost 3 in 10 students can’t agree that marking criteria was clear in advance, over a quarter don’t agree that marking and assessment has been fair, and one in four students don’t agree that comments were helpful.

There are policy implications that go beyond the inclusion of Assessment and Feedback as a TEF metric. The Competition and Markets Authority- whose initial guidance on Higher Education assumed that the service/product on offer was a course’s teaching- must surely broaden the focus of its guidance to the complexity of the services wrapped up in an HEI’s offer. Given assessment and feedback are so crucial to students for both learning and sorting, intervening to enable students to enforce rights to have it done properly is crucial.

It is also not clear why we go to the trouble of organising a national survey without requiring HEIs to publish a response and action plan, given we do so successfully on access. It’s clear that merely publishing satisfaction data is distortive and only partially successful- whereas a comprehensive plan (with input from student representatives) would drive more balanced improvement and retain institutional autonomy. OfS should consider it.

At an institutional level, the heart of the assessment and feedback problem is tied up in the management of performance. There has been plenty of HEA work on the pedagogy of effective practice in this area, but the real issues are about understanding the complexity of administrative systems and the cultural difficulties involved in causing academics to perform to a standard and deadline. These require real work, of the sort only possible if the promise of an integrated Higher Education Development Agency (rather than just a glued together HEA and Leadership Foundation with an Equality Challenge Unit conscience) is realised.

The other key story emerging from the results was one that concerned students’ unions. For the majority of the sector, Question 26 on the survey- which invited students to evaluate the effectiveness of their union in representing students’ ‘academic interests’- became its new lowest scoring item.  In the bulk of HEIs this new low was challenged only by the relative failure of institutions to communicate the impact of feedback gathered from students when compared to a University’s willingness to gather it, represented by a similarly poorly scoring Question 25.

Given the result it would be tempting to argue that the Q26 score indicates systemic failure and the need for serious reform if students’ unions are to continue to command funding and access to University decision making bodies. But the question and its results demand some scrutiny- some of which is assisted by a study commissioned by 18 students’ unions earlier in 2017 (“Union Futures”) to inform and enable a proactive response to the new question. Yielding a core dataset of over 17,000 students, the study provides a source of insight and reflection for the sector, and a platform for the development of both tactical and strategic actions.

A driving agenda behind changes to NSS this year was HEFCE’s desire to focus the survey more closely on the student academic experience, dropping questions on personal development in the process. This was a strange move given the wider focus of the TEF, and leaves large parts of the HE sector’s provision (both services and co-curricular) oddly unevaluated. In his pamphlet on HE and the Public Interest for HEPI, Bill Rammell argued that we need a framework that enables universities (in partnership with students’ unions) to “articulate and evidence their development of co-curricular and extra-curricular learning environments”, given the contribution of this activity to personal and civic development of students.

The shift in focus also left a clear dilemma for the question on students’ unions. In the previous NSS Q23 asked students to indicate the extent to which they agreed with the statement “Overall I am satisfied with my students’ union (association or guild)”.

But on the assumption that all SUs do have a representative role to play in students’ education, cognitive testing of a question to test it proved difficult. HEFCE’s own research suggested that previous iterations of Q26 confused students, some of whom appeared not to associate the SU with having a role in the student academic experience at all. And NSS 2017 bears out the testing, with a higher “neither agree nor disagree” score than for any other question. A question on SU impact on the academic should survive- but not if it is this easily misinterpreted.

The language of “interests” was problematic too. Although the “student interest” is a term familiar at sector level, in the Union Futures study a substantial number of students appeared to interpret the concept literally- evaluating their SU on the extent to which it reflected subjects and activities they were ‘interested in’. And even when students did understand the concept, the evidence suggests that a significant proportion of students evaluated the effectiveness of their Union at delivering co-curricular educational opportunities rather than influencing institutional academic provision- ironic given NSS’ direction of travel. It is critical that OfS looks again at the provision of student evaluation of and public information on the co-curricular, and arguably should go wider still in inviting students to assess the breadth of services and functions that form the wider student experience sold to students in prospectuses.

There is a strong correlation in NSS 2017 between Question 25 and 26, both of which vie for last place in most HEI results. These are interesting, because taken together they question satisfaction not just with the effectiveness of student input, but also success in communicating its effectiveness to students. There will always be a drag on being able to implement change that results from student intervention and views, but given the relative level of expertise and investment in marketing to applicants (HE choosers) when compared to marketing to current students (HE users) there is space for professional development in this area for HEI and SU communications professionals alike. At the very least HE leaders need to be more open to giving credit to SU Officers that have long argued for a change or investment when it is announced.

There are clear lessons for Students’ Unions themselves. In the Union Futures work, students prioritised four areas where the SU should focus to deliver on their academic interests:

  • Helping students be more employable when they graduate
  • Quality of teaching
  • Placements/work-based experience
  • Mental health support

NUS’ Quality Students’ Unions scheme suggests that the majority of Students’ Unions have Trustee Boards adept at strategic planning and effective paid staff and management, but tend to focus these resources on the management of delivery of services within the SU rather than longer term efforts to influence and improve the student experience at an HEI- often leaving these aspects to elected student officers. The Union Futures work suggests that improving the effectiveness of students’ unions will involve being less rigid about the respective role of SU Officers and Staff, with HEIs recognising that whilst the tip of the iceberg is the student President in the committee, it is only investment in the iceberg that enables that President to make valuable and evidenced contributions.

The Union Futures work tells us other things. Student reps are the most visible and accessible source of representation for students within the academic sphere − with 6 in 10 survey respondents in the study declaring that they would be likely or very likely to contact a student rep to support them in their academic interests. Where reps belong to the students’ union they can therefore make or break perceptions of the performance of the union on Q26. The huge disparity in investment in student representation between institutions deserves investigation, but more broadly the overall lack of investment is an important story. Almost all SUs have budgets that deliver the academic representation function on little more than a couple of junior staff and an elected sabbatical officer- so for it to be judged by over 50% of students as effective is miraculous rather than shameful- no wonder students with little other SU contact respond with “don’t know”.

Students’ Unions have tended to intervene at institutional level with the bulk of NSS inquiring about course level impact. My own experience at UEA- where dedicated investment in a school based representation and activities partnership with the SU has resulted in traditionally miserable Nursing and Midwifery students rating questions 25 and 26 in the top three of UEA’s 26 schools, should be an example researched and replicated where possible. Across the piece, Union Futures found that student reps must have sufficient power to make the student voice audible, be seen as approachable by both staff and students, be properly trained, understand the role of the students’ union and their function within it, and be true ambassadors. This requires real resource.

There are things we don’t know. The theory of student representation is that data fused with user representatives wielding it for accountability purposes drives improvements that data alone cannot generate- but in an era set to be dominated by metrics, this does need testing. And given the significant power imbalance between students and HEIs, students’ willingness to offer negative feedback to a tutor or department or submit a complaint about provision or behaviour requires research- with the role of SUs in giving students confidence to do so needing recognition. This is especially true in private providers and FEIs, where there are not the same traditions of Students’ Union development and activity, and regulation on what “counts” as a students union often does not apply. The answer is not to allow these aspects to become competitive options for providers of HE but instead for OfS to recognise their centrality, requiring all providers to reflect on the way they enable both individual advocacy for and collective representation of students within their culture.

We also don’t know about the enormous contribution made by many students’ unions to the rest of their HEI’s scores in NSS 2017. Sector level actors often assume that the mere publication of data causes behavioural changes at a granular level, but it is often the usage of the data by student representatives that levers the results. Of course students’ unions need to think about the nature of the relationship they and their reps have with their HEI- with neither aggressive opposition nor passivity embodying the kind of assertive partnership needed. But more broadly, if the publication of data to applicants helps drive change for choosers, then OfS also needs to understand what it is that can drive change in the interests of users- testing the widely held hypothesis that it is students unions and reps within an HEI that convert research into action.

What we do know is that UK HE- at least in public institutions- has a Students Union sector unique when compared to counterparts in both Europe and North America. Its fusing of individual and collective advocacy, along with collectively owned services and an extraordinary breadth of co-curricular activities- all run democratically- is a low-cost jewel in UK HE’s crown. Perhaps the real real story is not how poorly SUs score compared to libraries or academics, it’s how well they score when doing all this for less than £50 per student per year- and the opportunity there is for investment, development and research into the SU sector to drive improvement in all of NSS’ questions in the student interest.







Contracts, complaints and unintended consequences

Originally published on wonkhe

Whenever a minister announces a potential extension to the rights of students, I’ve started to notice a familiar pattern- and Jo Johnson’s announcement of an OfS consultation on the content of student contracts (his own little regulatory dead cat on the fees and debt table) is a case in point.

First, mainstream journalism ham-fistedly rewrites the press lines with the memory of a goldfish. “Jo Johnson proposes legal ‘consumer’ protection”, said the Guardian– forgetting their myriad of previous articles on CMA and existing student consumer rights.

Next, someone from the HE sector argues that giving students a smidgeon of power will undermine the whole system. “No one would want to see standards undermined by the risk of legal action”, said the Russell Group, as if allowing Universities to miss-sell the myth of Harry Potter HE without recourse is somehow what holds the whole fragile edifice of UK HE’s reputation together. Maybe it is.

Then- the usual braying anti-snowflake/consumerism brigade appear- arguing that students have never had it so good, and will somehow use the new powers to cheat. Perhaps my favourite of this season was “Education Expert” Helen Rowland, who used her Capital Law column to argue that contracts could “cut both ways”- and that Universities should be able to sue students if they don’t perform. Obviously for Helen the threat of Universities using their hallowed ‘academic judgment’ to issue a third in exchange for £60k worth of debt isn’t quite enough power over ‘lazy’ students already.

We’ve seen all this before, of course- it’s a chorus that has accompanied the introduction of almost all student protections to HE, including CMA’s interventions, student charters, better complaints procedures and even student representation in general across the last century. Most of it fits a particularly English tradition of assumed deference to elders and institutions, and incredulity at the temerity of challenge to those traditions- and can be safely ignored as a result. But as well as all that, there may well be unintended consequences from Jo Johnson’s redress reforms that deserve thinking through- just not the sort highlighted so far.

A few weeks back the “European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education” (imagine the socials) published a monograph from former UK HE adjudicator Rob Beherns, comparing Ombuds systems around the world. It’s a fascinating and compelling read- Rob reflects on the history, role and operational context of ombudsmen (noting the influence of student voices and students’ unions), the lived experience of ombudsmen (they all value independence, neutrality, impartiality, and confidentiality but a dispute about whether or not ombudsmen should adjudicate rages on) and independence (the ‘golden thread’ underpinning ombudsman authority, and generator of user and public trust).

The material is focussed on ombuds themselves, but it’s also full of useful insights into HE regulation, policy making and redress- and perhaps the most interesting section in the context of Johnson’s reforms touches on power. As Behrens points out, “individual student pursuit of redress within a hierarchical institution can be intimidating, notwithstanding the tradition of higher education institutions encouraging the challenge of individual views… many … feel vulnerable particularly when making serious allegations….it is this perceived (and real) absence of power which makes the availability of independent ombudsman and redress mechanisms to students so important”.

Power matters. We already know that there’s “less awareness among students of their consumer rights when engaging with their university compared with other organisations”. We also know that even when they do complain, they feel “disappointed, let down, angry, emotionally drained, exhausted, discriminated against, depressed and sad”. Ask any students’ union officer and they’ll confirm: students worry that complaining about the people who grade and judge them will result in lower marks. Ask any students’ union advisor and they’ll tell you that when a student complains about poor dissertation supervision once they’ve got a grade they’ll be written off as bearing bad grapes. But who would risk it before the grading? When these problems are magnified in courses that involve professional practice judgments or subjective marking of art, it’s only violent failure that punctures the pressure on a student to not rock the boat.

Behrens makes some vivid points about the role that many ombuds play in developing a positive complaints culture- noting that in 2005 an regional Australian Ombudsman uncovered things like a failure to recognise the value of learning from complaints to aid system improvement; poor centralised record-keeping; low levels of awareness of the need for fair procedures in handling complaints; over-complex and under-used formal complaints procedures; and the absence of fairness in decision-making by academic staff.

In this context the problem with Johnson’s reforms isn’t that they give students too much power- it’s that they could make the culture we’d want to see surrounding complaints worse. The threat of legal action makes it more, not less likely that a middle ranking department head will cover up a failure. The drama of legal redress makes it more, not less likely that institutions will drag the timelines out for as long as possible, exhausting students with justifiable complaints who just want to move on, and fobbing them off with derisory settlements that never get published. And the power to legally enforce a contract makes it more, not less likely that goals like HEIs publicly learning from complaints will never be realised- lest it admits in public that there was a problem that needed to be fixed. Ultimately for all the benevolent intent of HE leaders towards students, they cultivate cultures which defend the University when attacked- and the deep power imbalance that this represents could easily get worse with contract litigation.

There is an answer. Behrens’ canter across systems in the US and Europe does reveal countries with healthy systems that inform students of their rights; support them with complaints; adjudicate with confidence, independence and clarity within an HEI; and cause institutions to learn properly from complaints and feedback. The first two of these are covered by Students’ Unions in the UK, but they continue to need help support and funding to do it- and they need to exist in private provider HE where the traditions are missing but the risks to learners are high.

But it’s the second two where Johnson- by causing a conversation about complaints and the enforcement of contract clauses by students- could make a real difference. Every HEI ought to be compelled to appoint an independent ombudsperson of their own- jointly governed by the University and the SU- to investigate complaints, adjudicate, resolve, and ensure systemic learning. They’d be independent- commanding the confidence of students, academics, University managers and taxpayers alike. They’d be pragmatic- fitting one of the moulds outlined in Rob’s monograph of a focus on dispute resolution and avoiding blame. Small HEIs could share, like clerks to corporations in FE. And they’d be networked- supported by the OIA to improve practice and drive a positive culture from new student rights.

Who could make this happen? Clever HEIs could do it anyway- but like putting students on remuneration committees, no-one will want to be the first. And then there’s the question of who should lead. OIA was left out of the OfS for good reason, but the danger is that students and the sector are left with a baffling array of redress and complaints bodies which have problematic gaps and uncomfortable overlaps both in role and policy position. Nevertheless, DfE, OfS and OIA are full of bright people who will understand the dangers of heightening the threat of legal redress to the very students such reforms are supposed to support. Ultimately- if you’re like me and believe that you can combine student rights with a positive culture of feedback and complaint- there’s not really any choice.

Good news for the student rights let out of a (mixed) bag

Originally published on wonkhe.com

Judging by my Twitter feed, it’s probably not a good day to celebrate Jo Johnson’s speech at Reform. Words like “Neoliberal”, “Marketisation” and “Financialisation” pepper the 140 word critiques, and whilst I always advise student officers to locate proposals within wider ideologies, I also always advise a level of pragmatism. My own measure of an HE minister’s pronouncements is always “how much has it wound up the HE sector”, and on this basis it could well be that students have good reason to be cheerful.

The announcement that will doubtless generate the most ire across HE is that a metric on teaching intensity is to be piloted. Survey after survey of students reveals concerns about contact hours, with HEPI’s expectations report last month most poignant- and ministers have been trying to crack the resultant nut for years to no avail- hounded off by a chorus of yebbuts across HE that always prove that their way of teaching won’t fit the metric. So the pilot proposal– a clever mixture of a hard formula on hours and class sizes, coupled with a softer metric on student survey data about “getting what I need”, is exciting. It’s still nowhere on looking at actual quality (or indeed any qualifications held by an actual teacher), but for students who think we ought to at least have a crack at measuring the tuition you get for your tuition fee, it’s great news.

And then there’s promises. I think I was probably a junior HE wonk before I even applied to University- and I remember vividly the early 90s when John Major’s government (also with a precarious majority and riven by European splits) launched its Citizen’s Charter initiative. The HE bit promised that students would get “clear, accurate and enforceable” information about “courses, quality, accommodation and facilities”- but the sector’s unending ability to water down promises to students into vague pleasantries ensued as normal.

Similarly Labour had a try back in the late noughties, with its own “Student Charters” initiative gently advising HEIs to set out respective expectations for students and Universities. Most HEIs duly developed one- but as with the Tories’ try in the 90s, ended up getting away with watering them down into something so vague as to be utterly unenforceable by a ripped off student.

All of which makes today’s announcement on potential mandatory contract content so tantalising. I’ve written before about the failure in a tuition “fee” to define the product that is being supplied- and so the Minister’s suggestion that contracts should include detail on “resources, contact, assessment, support and other important aspects” should be a godsend to those students that feel that glittery open days and fancy brochures sold them a pup.

Of course, setting out the expectations and standards is one thing- but enforcing them is another. Even with OIA’s efforts and the CMA’s intervention, too few students know their rights and for those that do, too many never get near proper redress. Students in traditional HE have their Students’ Union that may or may not be funded to help- but those in the emergent private sector without that tradition are left dangerously exposed. Whatever OfS does on contract content, it would do well to consider how to strengthen the helping hand that Davids will need when taking on their HEI Goliaths.

There were other nuggets. Employment outcomes appearing in TEF is helpful, but LEO will only appear in Year Three of institutional level TEF (and so much later at subject level), and given the lag on institutional change showing up in LEO data and its pointlessness at anything other than aggregate subject level, it will take until my seven year old daughter applies to Uni for this to make a difference.

And cracking on with a proper pilot of Subject Level TEF- across 35 subject groups- is also good news for those of us that think institutional averages hide pockets of poor provision. That it’s to be a “closed, developmental” pilot is strange- but it’s certainly one in the eye for the VCs who thought they could kick it all into the sector’s long grass.

It wasn’t all good news. It shows quite the brass neck to get a morning’s press out of “VCs to face pay curbs”, only to announce gentle guidelines to remuneration committees instead- all whilst spending the other half of the speech accusing Labour of “bait and switch”. There’s really no excuse for not putting staff and students onto those bodies, and for the new Public Interest Governance Principles in the HE Act to require that deliberations of these bodies (and the bulk of Governing Body business in general) are made public.

Given the focus on “Value for Money”, to not have even started to think about an answer to the growing problem of the spiralling cost of student accommodation is extraordinary. DfE is still sitting on unreleased Student Income and Expenditure research from 2014/15, and so the least Jo could do is publish that work, hang out for a bit around Sajid Javid’s office, and put some heads together to address the reality that increasing chunks of “HE Money” is really going into the hands of private developers and buy-to-let landlords.

To talk about VFM from fees whilst claiming credit for improved access stats- without pointing out that the bulk of funding for all of that comes from a third of students’ additional fee income- is about as disingenuous as it gets. We urgently need to be honest with students and the public about where the money is coming from that delivers these improvements, lest hasty reform sweeps it and the progress made away on a sea of individualised financialisation.

And it remains the case that the power levers to strengthen a students’ hand remain curiously individualised. OfS can design all the national metrics it likes, but speeding up timetable release for students with kids, increasing social learning space as a Uni expands or securing appropriate sports facilities for Disabled Students won’t come from TEF metrics. It’s well funded and supported student representatives leaning on institutional actors that can make the difference on a multitude of issues, and it would helpful if Jo Johnson and OfS started to recognise rather than ignore this reality.

But as I said above, I like to take my student rights wherever I can find them. Broadband providers rightly get hammered when their “average” speed claims are hampered in your house by poor contention rates on your street- yet the sector’s willingness to plaster “TEF Gold” stickers (and associated student experience boasts) over their Open Days goes unchecked. Subject Level TEF and clearer contracts will help both choosers and HE users get what they’re being sold, and improve practice at something closer to students’ experience in a large HEI.

It’s true to say that it’s not clear that Jo Johnson understands the real politics of the fee system- falling into the same trap as Willets and Cable in believing that 6% interest rates and large numbers never paying off will ever be seen as technically progressive features rather than crises. It’s also likely that the sector will now go into overdrive to find ways to dilute the intentions espoused in the speech today. But history tells us that even if Labour wins and restores “Free Education” (for home undergraduates), once you start measuring what students care about, and once enforceable promises are made to students, you can never put the rights cat back in the bag. And that’s why, perhaps on my own and in a personal capacity, I’ll be having a little celebration tonight.