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.

You don’t even know me. So why do you judge my life?

One of the things that is supposed to set Students’ Unions apart from other benevolent interest groups is their democracy, which is supposed to ensure that students’ interests are met. But is this true? Is it really ‘democratic’, or just garish popularity contests, painful processes and playground bullying masquerading as “accountability”? Can you become more representative whilst being less democratic? And are those of us advising Students’ Unions on their democracy mainly ex officers that won in a system that systematically shuts out the quiet, the thoughtful, the wise and the eccentric? 

Drawing on my research from the voluntary sector, this piece explores notions of democracy and “interests” with a hope that it inspires new practices of democracy in students’ unions. I explore the ways in which students are supposed to be able to exert power and control over their union through democracy and governance, enabling them to drive organizational political and educational change.

In law, Students’ Unions are associations “of the generality of students at an establishment … whose principal purposes include promoting the general interests of its members as students[1]”. They are also almost all self-styled democratic organisations, which are promoted as being led or run by students. In the past, this would manifest in two principal ways- through the election of a student leadership (both full time sabbatical and part time) and through student meetings (either a representative council, all student meeting or both) which would pass policy resolutions “mandating” that leadership and hold student leaders to account.

It is often suggested that the widespread decline of the latter set of arrangements was a result of Students’ Unions having to register formally as Charities in 2010 when they lost their previous “exempt from registration” status. It is true to say that the creation of Boards (thanks largely to the mimetic adoption of an NUS Model Charity Constitution and associated urge to incorporate as companies) caused Unions to adopt behaviours, practices and models more akin to the Charity Sector- including the controversial insertion of lay trustees- but models distributed at the time included General Meetings and Councils. And in any case, the legitimacy of those structures had been under serious challenge for years.

Nick Berg’s classic article[2] from the Association of managers in Students’ Unions Journal in 2005 sums up the problem well- “[there is an] undermining of the legitimacy of UK Students’ Unions through the erosion of both the feeling of a shared student identity and the sense and reality of there being a student community”, and goes on to argue that “traditional” democratic structures would not suffice in the coming years. The argument was that these structures involved too few people and in an “activist” mode- where the complexities of the external environment and indeed the student body necessitated practice which could meaningfully represent that complexity.

As a result in the majority of Universities, “old” structures designed to facilitate the democratic representation, determination and resolution of competing interests were largely swept away, replaced with polling, research and survey work. Even where the old structures survive, they are often inquorate and hardly drive organisational work or strategy. Trustee Boards have regularly (and often controversially) set aside decisions made by democratic bodies. Elections survive, but as popular interviews on motivation and skill rather than exercises in public discussion of issues and interests.

Even where Students’ Unions (and NUS) carry out reviews of Democracy, they tend to focus on the parts where students vote- with stats on participation. But determining interests is like academic work- it requires research, debate, analysis and recommendation. Every year multiple SUs review the bit where the work gets collectively marked rather than trying to involve more students in the bit where it’s developed. It’s daft and will always result in a failure to involve all but the most confident and popular.

To explore these issues I undertook a research project into the decision making arrangements of four “non profit” organisations, all with “interests” at their heart- a General FE College, an HE Students’ Union, a Homelessness Charity and a National Advocacy Charity. The results were revealing.

The Literature

Agency Theory … “assumes that the owners of an enterprise (the principal) and those that manage it (the agent) will have different interests”, and “suggests that the primary role of company directors is one of ensuring managerial compliance…to ensure it acts in the shareholders’ best interests”[3]

As such the extent to which SU Exec Committees or Boards fulfil the role of acting to ensure that agents act in the interests of principals is important. Of course, as Cornforth points out, in the voluntary sector:

“there is much more potential ambiguity over who the principals or owners are…is it the founders, beneficiaries or members…and in the case of Public organisations, is it the general public, service users, taxpayers or the government itself”[4]

To test an SU’s effectiveness at determining, representing and resolving interests of the students, it is thus critical to examine matters such as

  • the extent to which students are properly defined or understood;
  • the extent to which (for a particular project, function or service) “students” permitted to change within the body’s aims or be fixed; and
  • the extent to which there is conflict over the definition of “students” (as students), and how that is resolved.

Stakeholder theory has developed some of these concepts beyond owners or principals; it identifies groups which are stakeholders of an organisation, and recommends methods which can be used to serve the interests of those groups- traditionally through Board membership. Given the multiplicity of potential interests involved, this

“leads to a political role for boards negotiating and resolving the potentially conflicting interests of different stakeholder groups”[5]

Larger SUs have tended to view Trustee Boards as “non political” and indeed NUS’ Governance arrangements explicitly separate the political role of NEC/Conference and that of the Board. Regardless, it seems to me that where Boards or Student Executives are “resolving the potentially conflicting interests”, they are doing that for students, where previously at some attempt was made to ensure that students were able to do that collectively.

Much of the literature focusses on control and accountability, and as such has in its sights power, and its uses and abuses by leaders over their organisations or beneficiaries. A study carried out in 2007 by Guo and Musso takes as their start point the contention that non profit organisations contribute to the democratic ‘fabric’ of society by representing beneficiaries- they then examine the capacity of these organisations to represent, developing a framework of five dimensions split into two categories- Board Legitimacy and Board Capacity.

Within Guo and Musso’s Legitimacy category is a rehearsal of “mandate-independence” controversy faced by multiple student officers (especially on their University’s Board)- whether a representative should act under direct mandate of a constituency or merely act in what they consider to be the interests of those that put them there.[6]

Guo and Musso then examine capacity to represent, in three ways.

  • Formal describes the ways in which students might select leaders and how they may exercise power overt them.
  • Descriptive assesses the extent to which leaders mirror characteristics of the student community.
  • Participatory describes the ways in which students can be directly involved.

Reviews of SU democracy might usefully examine all three of these capacity areas.

There is of course much literature on democracy and decision making that in and of itself is too vast to be considered properly here. However dipping into the specialist work on Trade Unions, Cooperatives and Public Management is useful for SUs given the parallels and linkages, some of it drawing usefully on concepts of Exit, Choice and Voice developed by Hirschman.[7]

Trade Unions’ capacity has often been seen as determined by the tension between operations / capacity, and representativeness.  Child, Loveridge and Warner[8] identify this as being a critical tension when examining the capacity of union to do its job properly, and in doing so identify what they call “rationalities” for decision making.

Administrative rationality: “the logic of a goal-implementation or operational system… the design of an organisation in such a way that specified tasks or outcomes are attained with certainty or economy.

These conditions appear in many instances to require a routinisation of operations, specialisation of functions, directness of communication, and speed in decision-making”.

Representative rationality: “a flexibility of operations to suit the needs of different membership groups located within different situations, a duplication of functions in order to build checks and balances into union control, a multiplicity of communications in order to allow maximum interchange…of opinion, and a holding back of decision-making until every viewpoint has been expressed” (Child, Loveridge and Warner 1973:78)


Child, Loveridge and Warner (1973)

When this model was first used in NUS Training in the early 2000’s, the assumption in tutors notes was that CEOs and Managers were administrative leaders, with Elected Officers representative leaders. But given the longevity, expense and skill of the former (counter posed with the transience of the latter) are we at risk of leaving representation and interests to amateurs?

The critical lesson is to examine the nature of decision making itself in an SU. Even if it was possible to identify respective roles for Student Executives, Boards and Managers to make a particular decision, on what basis is that decision made? What perspectives are taken into account- and are they, for example, administrative or representative in nature?

Zimmerman and Dart’s[9] examination of “commercialisation” in the not for profit sector argues that “Governance” can become less “responsive to community needs and more concerned with issues such as productivity and accountability”, or “that they focus too much on output measures (e.g. are we serving more people than we were last year?) of effectiveness” and ignore other measures- such as which people it is best to serve.

Determining Student Interests

“Working out what the interests or needs of beneficiaries are, and who they are”

In my research, the different ways of understanding users, beneficiaries etc had a clear impact on the interests determination issue. In the homeless project, for example, the term in prevalent use was users (occasionally swapped for clients); and as such the only people under discussion or consideration were those actively using the project’s services at the time.

This is easily contrasted with the national advice/advocacy charity. Here the term “beneficiaries” was in constant use and given the major representative and campaigning role of the charity, a wider group of people (many not actually making any direct use of the services) were seen as benefitting from the charity’s work.

Yet in the students’ union, the language of “students”- and “members” being defined as all students- led to a wider set of considerations:

“Yeah so because all students are members we have to think about all of them. We know that not all of them are going to join sports club but we’ve got better at understanding them all even if we accept that some of them will never immerse in our work. We have to strive to represent them all and involve some, if that makes sense” (SU CEO)

In this way SUs could draw a distinction between a group or individual’s interests in relation to a service (ie views on the opening hours of a helpline) and their interests more broadly (their hopes, fears or economic needs)


The understanding of the roles of bodies and individuals with the Governance framework of each of the charities also had a clear impact. In the students’ union, the consideration of the interests of students was explicitly not a role of the Board at all-

“We do that through the elected exec and referendums. The Board just runs the organisation so that it can make all of that other political stuff happen” (President, HE SU)

In the FE College, one of the stated roles of the Board was to be responsive to the community and as such consider its needs. Yet although two student members were constitutionally required, their role was explicitly not to “represent” learners- and indeed their role was to consider organisational, not people interests:

“Oh no, we used to have that but now we tell them clearly that they are not there as representatives- they have to work in the best interests of the college” (Chair, FE College)

Yet in the national advice/advocacy charity, it was clear that there was a clear role for the Board in “interests”. One of the formal roles of the Board was “to set the strategy of the organisation in response to, and informed by, input from surveys of and consultations with those we serve”. (Terms of Reference, national advice/advocacy charity)

Thus in terms of role, two of the organisations under consideration indicated that the Board itself should “handle” or “debate” what was in the interests of their beneficiaries (the FE College and the national advice/advocacy charity); in the students’ union and the homeless charity “interests” were defined by Board role as “politics”, one negatively (homeless) and one positively but therefore in another part (Union Council/Referendums) of the Governance of the Charity (HE SU).

Given this Students’ Unions really ought to be clear about who, and when, has the role of discussing the “interests” of beneficiaries.

Representing Interests

“The ways in which the interests or needs of beneficiaries are presented to decision makers, and why whom”

In the HE SU there was a fascinating reflection on how to “find out” the interests of students and the role of Governance in that:

“Well yeah our Strategic Plan says we should be more evidence led. We have done that especially when we go to the University with asks or campaigns at the same time as dismantling the old Union Council which was just a bunch of hacks in a room… I suppose you could say we have become more representative by being less democratic, yes, and I’m not sure what I feel about that” (President, HE SU)

In three of the Charities beneficiaries made up a small number of members of the Board; yet their role and then performance in representing interests was either confused or refuted. In the FE College student members were specifically briefed not to represent student interests (but to consider issues from a “student perspective”); similarly in the National advocacy charity; in the HE SU the elected students were there to “represent students” but in other settings than the Trustee Board itself. Officer reports were not about meeting student interests but duties within a role. This all seemed at odds to the rhetoric on user involvement promoted in education or the Third Sector on user involvement.

There are key tensions, both in theory and practice, in user involvement and the extent to which it is possible or desirable for users themselves to “represent” their group’s interests inside the Governance of a Charity. Students’ Unions should be clear about where and how this is to be done, and consider how they are represented- by people or research (or the mix between the two).

Resolving Interests

“The ways in which competing interests or needs of beneficiaries are presented by decision makers, and paths of action taken”

None of the organisations’ Boards believed they or considered that they might have a role in resolving competing interests- save that the HE SU recognised that this was a role for other parts of the organisation’s Governance. Yet in practice in each of the Charities examined there was some evidence of competing interests being resolved by the Board itself.

In the national advice/advocacy charity, for example one meeting had received the organisation’s impact report, the minutes revealing that there had been some impromptu debate on the expenditure balance between services for beneficiaries and spend on national campaigns and influencing work, with questions raised as to the relative impact. Whilst interesting, there was no evidence that the Board itself had real tools for evaluating these concepts properly.

In the homeless charity example, the organisation was operating in a monopsony; there was one major local funder that issued grants to projects across the area. In this way the organisation legitimately did not feel the need to examine all of the homeless people in the area and their needs- they just competed for funding, and thus the responsibility to do the wider interests work was that of the funder.

In the FE College, on the other hand, the organisation was a monopoly provider of vocational, tertiary education in the area. Yet it still behaved like the homeless charity- assessing itself as if it was competing for funding and examining mainly the views of existing learners on its own services. This approach meant that the monopoly provider of vocational, tertiary education in the area was not conscious at all of any gaps in its provision- almost certainly meaning that some of the interests of some of the people would go unmet.

Given students’ union activity can both represent a monopsony and a monopoly, the position of an SU in relation to the funders and other organisations in an area or field the SU is in  is critical in determining the appropriate method for interests resolution by the organisation. And when students take on the resolution of competing interests, they need the appropriate evaluative tools to do so.


In my research I also identified a typology of accountability. Traditional charities that are not “owned” by their beneficiaries do not necessarily have to demonstrate that they are accountable to a set of beneficiaries. But the idea of democratic accountability to students in our context is surely in part a method for demonstrating that their interests or needs are being met.

Market Accountability: Within the college there was a clear sense that if people were coming in through the door it must be good. Success or failure was judged in these terms, proving “popularity”, but screening out diversity or need. In the HE SU, shots of vodka at 50p were providing good results under market accountability, but the players dissembled when challenged on whether this was really in students’ interests.

Survey Accountability: The National Advocacy/Information Charity had a wealth of surveys on user satisfaction to point to. These, it was argued, had the advantage of providing “scientific” results (as opposed to their old Governance model that had prized participation in a council), but it only proved how well the questions were framed- and then only measured the notoriously difficult notion of “satisfaction”. Questions of who was completing them, what their wider “interests” were, or what non users might need or think, vanished from view.

Scrutiny Accountability: In the National Advocacy/Information Charity, a small group of users were selected to carefully scrutinise aspects of the CEO’s work and then declared the result. This was also done in the HE SU in a similar way with Officer Scrutiny Panels. But in both cases this  was focussed on individual performance rather than interests- and seemed only to serve to validate broader decisions on strategy- there was no sense (or evidence) that it might cause a rethink in strategy or service provision.

It is clear then that more explicit or sophisticated ways of doing accountability are probably needed, with a clear sense inside SUs of who services, officers or projects are accountable to as well as what a Student Officer, Executive or Board is accountable for.


During the research I reflected on the role of money and funding in the interests question. In each of the organisations that were examined, there was always the survival of the organisation to consider for leaders- money was viewed as important by all four of the organisations.

This leads to two issues how an organisation attracts that funding, and the interests that the funders are prepared to see their funds put to.

In the HE SU, there were only really two forms of income. The first was block grant funding from the parent University. The CEO of the union remarked that the institution (under the auspices of concerns about public money) was increasingly seeking to control the ways in which their money is spent:

“It used to be just a straight grant. But these days the money comes with lots of strings- we agree a set of priorities every year… This hasn’t been very restrictive because the money has been going up each time but if the money was cut I could imagine us falling out [with the university] over priorities”

Some of that was about compliance- a restriction that guaranteed students’ “freedom from” harm; or a restriction on the union’s “freedom to” carry out activity. These compliance “strings” on funding represented a restriction on the union’s activity and thus a narrowing of what can be determined to be in students’ interests.

Money can also control what is “in the interests of beneficiaries” in other ways.

The homeless charity naturally felt the need, especially when seeking block or grant funding, to frame their calls for funding within the objectives of the local authority or some other funder. This firstly meant that the need to do “partnership building” inevitably saw the organisation behaving less oppositionally than they might have if they were not in hock to the body for money.

But more importantly it means that interests – or at least the range of interests from which an organisation could choose to prioritise- are determined by another institutional definition or subset. Sometimes only where the two collide- and a deal of time was invested by all four in achieving alignment- was funding released. It certainly seemed to be true to say that a great number of potential beneficiaries of all four charities have a great number of interests that are not met or considered by the organisations either because compliance prevented it, or because wider institutions would never fund it. So a considerable extent, the “interests” were defined not by the charities themselves, but by the law, moral perceptions and by wider funding bodies’ processes. “Employability” is an area being funded right now in SUs. It is doubtless in students’ interests (and is coincidentally in HEI interests given the Teaching Excellence Framework)- but I don’t see much funding going into SUs to inform students of their rights over education under consumer law.

In the HE SU, the other major source of funding was through customers of its bars and shops operation- with a “profit recycled into action” argument. But there again there was a difficulty. These are interesting charities because this “mutual trading” is seen as being within the objects of the charity. But those interests are usually only met when the service is profitable:

“Well of course we used to prop up badly run and managed services on the basis of assuming that it was providing a service. It wasn’t really so we closed many of the bars and the club” (CEO, HE SU)

In this sense, the overall profitability of those services determine what the “interests” of those students are then promoted as in that Charity.  Similarly, to “attract” that funding (ie the surplus) that Students’ Union had to court and attract its customers. That led to a disproportionate focus on those members likely also to be customers- full time, middle class undergraduates.


It is a well understood phenomenon that the boundaries between the public, voluntary and private sectors are less clear than ever. Much of that centres on the extent to which private interests are being met, either at the direct expense of public interests or as a matter of comparison with those of “ordinary people”. But outside of the news headlines, large swathes of public services are now delivered through organisations whose meetings structures and leaders have been given the task- sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly- of determining, representing and resolving that which is in the interests of people such that those interests can be served.

Democracy appears to offer the prospect of a focus on students’ interests being central to decision making and strategy. Yet across the Student Movement and wider Voluntary Sector, the extent to which participation by users results in their interests being identified or met is in my view under researched and over assumed.

There is little doubt that all four of the organisations examined have adopted a Governance culture which does not satisfactorily identify or resolve conflicts between the interests of its beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries. The concept, process, methodology and behaviours required to get this right all need further research, focus and work from National bodies previously focussed on providing advice on administrative matters- fiduciary, legal and management capability.

The concept, process, methodology and behaviours required to get this right- getting SU democratic and governance arrangements to behave in the legitimate interests of the students their organisations serve- all need further research, focus and work;  and they need managers and CEOs and national bodies that have until now focussed on fiduciary, legal and management capability to change the way we think and alter the value we are perceived to bring. It’s time for my profession to stop lauding itself simply as a technocratic “grown up” that can run things efficiently and know the law, whilst the amateurs sort the interests of beneficiaries and the fledgling democracy.

The good news is that for all the messiness of elections and referendums and union council meetings, students’ unions represent a great place to start for rebuilding democracy in the public realm, so we should crack on with it.

[1] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1994/30/section/20
[2] http://www.changesu.org/?p=497
[3] Cornforth, Chris (2002). Making sense of co-operative governance: Competing models and tensions. Review of International Co-operation, 95(1), pp. 51–57.
[4] Cornforth, C. (2002). The governance of public and non-profit organizations : what do boards do? London, Routledge.
[5] Cornforth.C (2003) ‘The Governance of Public and Non-profit organisations’ (Routledge)
[6] Guo Chao and Musso J. A. (2007). “Representation in Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations: A Conceptual Framework.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 36(2): 308-326.
[7] Hirschmann (1975) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations
[8] Child, J.,; R. Loveridge,; M. Warner. (1973) ‘Towards an Organizational Study of Trade Unions’ , Sociology 7(1): 71-91.
[9] Zimmerman, B. & R. Dart. 1997. “Making sense of the murmurings: The societal implications of charities doing commercial ventures”, Report for the Canadian Policy Research Network.

Students don’t need more markets, but collective choice and voice

Originally published on wonkhe

Over here in students’ union-land, it’s handover time, with meeting rooms full of jaded departing sabbatical officers introducing the cast of characters and committees that make up a university to excitable and ambitious newbies.

It’s an important process- mainly because those new to the system tend to blithely assume that ‘the university’ is centrally managed, consistent, and agrees with itself. As we all know, the truth is much more complex.

There have been a similar set of category errors in play this month over TEF. I can’t find a lot wrong with putting metrics in the mix when making judgements and assessments. But to suggest that the precise collection of metrics with their precise weighting is somehow innately in all students’ interests is preposterous. As is the aggregating of all the metrics relating to different student experiences on different programmes into a single institutional score. That this is then further boiled into one of three medals, well, it’s almost as ridiculous as the UK degree classification system!

No wonder the indignant Bronze holders from the Russell Group are submitting an academic appeal, although it’s hard to see what their ‘extenuating circumstances’ are. They were certainly fit to sit.

So just as I’m quick to correct new student officers when they describe ‘the university’ as a single coherent thing, I’m also interested when people do the same with ‘students’. We are, of course, about to get an Office for Students. The student interest is about to be re-inserted into policy discourse, albeit with a new frame. Students and their representatives are unlikely to view the appointment of the head of universities’ lobby group as OfS chief executive as an optimistic indicator that their interests will be championed over those of providers. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

In the meantime, it seems to me that the OfS chair’s view on ‘students’ – and their relationship to education – matters quite a bit.

Enter Sir Michael

The first thing to say about Sir Michael Barber’s speech to UUK conference a fortnight ago is just how little it mentions students. There are no personal anecdotes about contact hours here, or reflections on relatives’ experiences in higher education to justify regulatory intervention. No references to HEPI surveys or quotes from course reps. In fact, on first reading, it’s almost impossible to imagine who Sir Michael thinks students are, or indeed what the problem is that OfS will seek to fix.

I found a copy of a report authored by Sir Michael, from a conference called ‘Reforming public services: 21st-century public services, putting people first’. It’s highly illuminating because in it he describes three strategies for regulating public services that can be used depending on circumstances. These are also outlined in his recent book, How to Run a Government.

‘Command and Control’ is Barber’s first option. It’s best used “when you are trying to establish some minimum standards in a particular area…when the service is awful… or in an emergency…some forms of really vigorous implementation are necessary”. Given that he believes “higher education sector is a jewel in the country’s crown”, it’s probably a safe bet to suggest that Barber doesn’t think that this strategy is required with OfS, however much crowing from the sector about threats to its autonomy.

“Quasi-Markets” are Barber’s second option. These are used “when the individual can have choice… in health and education, for example (but not in policing and criminal justice) where the diversity of supply is a genuine good. Here the challenge is to build in equity”. This is much more like the model Barber outlines in his speech. “Our student-focused view of the market will lead us to design regulation that reflects how students actually make decisions”, he says. “The Office for Students will draw from behavioural science to ensure that would-be students are empowered, not overwhelmed”.

What’s interesting about this option is how different it is from his third – “Devolution and Transparency”. This later went on to become something called “Collective Choice and Voice” in the late-Blair/Brown years. This approach to reform involves ever more transparent data that users can use to debate and define standards with public service professionals, and the voices of empowered users being deployed to create accountability is also in the mix. “Co-production” is a central mantra. Yet this strategy should only be used, argued Barber, when the individual choice doesn’t apply – or when trying to move services from “good” to “great”.

Chooser, user, payer and beneficiary

While the lazy route is to complain that tuition fees have made students ‘customers’, I’ve pointed out on Wonkhe before that unlike in the white goods sector, it’s because the chooser, user, and payer roles of the purchasers are fatally stretched over time and that undermines the consumer power model in higher education. Almost all public policy interventions aimed at empowering the student in recent years have been obsessed with empowering the ‘chooser’ role – in other words, empowering applicants.

Barber’s speech doesn’t divert from that orthodoxy. He ponders what models might “offer students choice” and argues that “students will be able to make better-informed decisions as they choose between courses and institutions”.

The problem is that the student interest is more than just what looks attractive at the application stage. Higher education is a one shot experience: a high investment, long term relationship that is characterised not by lots of choices, but by dependency on a power relationship that is only rarely disrupted by leaving one provider for another (as in any other market).

One could be forgiven for arguing that this is a trap. We know that once at university, 92% of students are advised of or required to cover additional course costs that they didn’t know about when applying. 58% of students report experiencing a change to their course (like a change of campus or dropped content), a third of which think the change is unfair. Only half of students with a problem complain, and half of those that do felt the complaint was ignored. These are experiences of users, not choosers. “Collective Choice and Voice” could make the most difference here; not a subject level TEF.

Or take the marginalised. Imagine being a nursing student that feels bullied on placement but daren’t speak out. Or a PhD associate tutor that knows that the way work is allocated in the department is done with a nod and a wink but feels powerless to report it. It’s in these user roles that regulation needs to empower actual students, rather than just applicants.

Whither student voice?

The sad bit is that until Jo Johnson, OfS, and all its related paraphernalia came along, higher education was moving in a good direction towards “Collective Choice and Voice”. Readers of a report of the Commons Public Administration Committee from 2008 will recognise practice that has emerged in universities. There’s lots on making data and metrics available for users and their representatives to use to create accountability suited to that service or organisation. It rehearses the benefits of citizen choice and funding following choosers. But it’s vivid on user voice and co-production too. Recognising that “user voice” can sometimes be captured by those with sharp elbows, there’s also lots on ensuring that the user’s voice is evidenced, and all users are supported.

Thanks to NUS and QAA, students’ unions, their officers, and staff working in quality and student engagement, many universities have been pioneering and embedding ‘user voice’ for over a decade. QAA institutional review has given students the opportunity to submit a student submission for some years now. I have been told countless tales of long standing problems being fixed and investment ramping up as a response to these submissions.

Yet this co-production style of user involvement feels coldly absent from the regulatory landscape we are moving into now. DfE were at pains to argue that a mandatory student submission into TEF would not be appropriate. And back at the ranch, there are scores of subject-level TEF exercises going on that do involve the pesky student voice, not as part of the mock assessor, but as part of the mock assessed.

It’s a dangerous move. By assuming that applicant choice is the power lever (when once enrolled, it is nothing of the sort), our new regulatory system threatens to trash decades of expertise and robust practice built up in the profession of student representation. But it also threatens real ideas woven into the fabric of UK higher education: of co-production of education, of challenge to authority and received wisdom, and of decisions made in the glare of public scrutiny. These are things that, last time I checked, most senior academics used to believe in.

It could be that I’m wrong. Maybe Barber and Dandridge know all of this and are waiting on the architecture around them to form before they start designing regulatory interventions that empower users as much as TEF is supposed to help choosers. I do hope so. Because although there is no shared or agreed purpose of higher education, I would like to think that it remains the case that co-production, challenge to authority and received wisdom, and public accountability, all remain pretty core.

Student approval ratings are abysmal – universities need effective regulation

Originally published in the Guardian, 10th April 2017

Imagine if a major car manufacturer released a new model that 25% of drivers couldn’t agree was “running smoothly” after three years of ownership. Or a major driving school where one in four customers said they had not received “sufficient advice and support” before their test – or where almost as many couldn’t bring themselves to agree that feedback on their driving “had helped them clarify things they didn’t understand”.

For any service sector with humility, these statistics would be a source of shame, and a reason for regulators to intervene. But in higher education, our funding council took the most recent National (final year) Student Survey and wrote that “this year’s survey remains very positive, demonstrating the commitment of all higher education providers to deliver high quality teaching and learning for their students”.

For taxpayers, students (and now the National Audit Office), this is about value for money. Back in 2013, the then higher education minister David Willetts said that “students will be asking what they are getting for a fee of £9,000. I answer that it is to pay for their teaching not to cross-subsidise research. I hope and expect to see a decline in the number of students with such low contact hours”. Yet rather than improving, student perceptions of “good value for money” have collapsed – from 53% in 2012 to just 37% today.

Seven years after the “battle of Millbank”, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the allocation of precious parliamentary time to a higher education bill by the government might fix some of the injustices involved in the purchasing of a university education – but you’d be wrong. For while we remain obsessed with a headline undergraduate fee level of £9,000, politicians appear to be unconcerned with what that pays for, where the money goes, and what happens when students don’t get what they were promised.

Whereas in press regulation the playbook for resisting reasonable regulation is to shout “press freedom”, in higher education the game of the lavishly rewarded vice-chancellor set is to cry “academic freedom” and “institutional autonomy”. It’s a right invoked to conjure up the image of brave academics challenging convention and standing up to tyrants, but then gets grubbily used by the great and the good for their own tyrannical purposes.

Want to challenge the mark you’ve been awarded by an overworked, stressed-out lecturer marking 200 scripts a night? You can’t challenge “academic judgment”, one of the only professions left where a blanket ban on challenges to “reasonable skill and care” still holds.

Want to find out the extent to which your tuition fees subsidise research? Want to know how much humanities subsidise Stem? Some 75% of students want more information about how their tuition fees are spent, but universities resist publishing data in comparable form, claiming “autonomy” to spend tuition fee income on other things.

Want to find out the social make-up of the university’s medical or accountancy students to ensure that pressure is on to diversify our top professions? Even the government’s own higher education access regulator can’t do that – prevented by law from intervening even at subject-cluster level to urge action because of “academic freedom”.

And don’t expect the government’s vaunted “teaching excellence framework” to come close to achieving its purpose of driving excellence in teaching. Its ragtag collection of proxy metrics doesn’t even include one on teaching, and its focus on institutional averages hides differences in performance between subjects and departments within universities that are so vast as to make the assessment meaningless for students choosing courses. Any suggestion of taking this down to the subject level? No. It’s been kicked into the long grass by vice-chancellors and lords.

There is a reasonable argument within higher education that regards students being seen as “consumers” as a problem. Educational outcomes aren’t bought and sold, they’re co-produced; and just as customers of the local gym have to turn up and pump some iron to get fit, so students have to take some responsibility for their own learning to get their qualification and progress their career.

But the essential nature of education as a service – and the personal debt now being piled on to those who enter higher education at 18 – also means that students and graduates need to have some say over what is provided. Higher education bill scrutiny in the upper house could have been used to compel universities to publish what students will get for their fees, or to prevent the government retrospectively changing student loans terms.

Instead, months after the Brexit damage has been done, the Lords has adopted the vice-chancellors’ phony war over international students’ inclusion in net migration figures – ringfencing the cash cows while doing nothing to stem the racism directed at migrants who aren’t in higher education.

Most of the UK’s higher education is good. Our research is world class, our teachers are talented and most people working in management mean well. But the misguided belief of the great and the good that their mere presence and attitude is enough to protect people at the margins of institutions from facing injustices when things go wrong is what regulation is supposed to correct.

Despite the proposal for an Office for Students, that the higher education bill will shortly complete its journey through parliament doing little more for students than legitimising a further increase in their fees tells us all we need to know about whose interests this government is prioritising.