Nicola Dandridge: Higher Education is changing. That is why the work of the Office for Students is so vital
As the UK’s higher education sector evolves and adapts to the emerging needs of our economy and society, we will be a vocal and vigorous defender of the interests of England’s two million students, writes the Office for Students chief executive Nicola Dandridge
Higher education is very much in the news these days. There is considerable interest in every aspect of how universities are run and in the value for money they provide to students and taxpayers. This interest is no doubt reflected in parliamentarians’ mailboxes too. But amid the controversies and concerns, at the heart of the debate are some very real and practical issues affecting the life chances of students, as well as the economic strength of the country, and its social cohesion.
That is why the work of the Office for Students is so important. In April, we started to regulate universities and other higher education providers to ensure that all registered providers meet a quality threshold and offer a challenging, enriching and inspiring experience for all students. We help ensure that students from all backgrounds can access a course that is right for them, with excellent teaching and an experience and qualification that prepares them well for the rest of their lives.
We were created as an independent public body by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. The legislation gives us a range of regulatory powers and a duty to respect institutional autonomy. We will not be an overbearing regulator, micromanaging the affairs of our universities. However, we will be a vocal and vigorous defender of the interests of England’s two million students, be they full-time or part-time, young or mature, undergraduate or postgraduate, domestic or international.
Our universities, colleges and other course providers are evolving and changing all the time, adapting to the emerging needs of our society. This continual evolution is essential to ensure higher education is responsive to the nation’s current and emerging needs. To reflect this, we have to ensure that our regulatory model is modern, responsive and dynamic. We will therefore regulate according to risk, meaning a light-touch approach for many, but targeted focus where we have concerns. We will use the latest data and learn from best regulatory practice.
Higher education providers registering with us must meet a range of conditions around fair access, teaching quality and financial sustainability, among others. And while we will set a high bar to meet the conditions for registration, we will also encourage innovation in provision and new providers. Indeed, the diversity of higher education provision in England is one of our great strengths, allowing students to study at any age, part-time or full-time and in an increasingly wide and innovative range of settings.
Our legal powers will be used to have a positive impact on students in England. Our first objective is to ensure that people with the talent to enter and succeed in higher education have the opportunity to do so, whatever their background. Despite welcome progress in recent years, someone from a disadvantaged background is still around two and a half times less likely to enter higher education than someone from an advantaged background. This figure soars when we consider multiple layers of disadvantage or access to the most selective universities.
Universities invest more than £800m a year in outreach and attainment-raising activities, and in fee waivers and bursaries. There is good evidence that some interventions make a real difference, but we need to know much more about what works best. Universities need to invest smartly in this area in a way that ensures demonstrable impact. Many need to do more to shift the dial. We want them to be ambitious in the plans they must submit to us, and turn those plans into results that help improve social mobility and diversity.
As well as ensuring that students from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds are able to get into university, we need to make sure they are supported to get on, too. The evidence shows us, for example, that there is a persistent attainment gap for Black students, even when we control for factors like entrance grades which might affect how a student does at university. Where universities are not willing or able to make progress, we can and will intervene. Our nuanced powers allow taking action – from enhanced monitoring, imposing specific conditions on universities through to more significant sanctions such as fines.
Ultimately, our new powers and the regulatory framework that underpins them recognise that students have rights as consumers, and those rights need to be protected and reinforced. Students make a significant contribution to their studies through their graduate repayments and rightly expect to be well taught in good facilities. This is true for all students in England - whatever, wherever and however they are studying.
Of course, this does not mean that higher education is a purely transactional event, and it does not mean that the relationship between a student and their university can be entirely reduced to that of consumer/provider. It is demonstrably so much more than that, and universities should seek to enhance students’ whole experience at university. The Office for Students also has an important role to play here – and one critically important example of this is how we can work with students and with the sector to maintain and improve provision for mental health and wellbeing support.
All of our work is done with students’ interests in mind – whether they are current, past or future students. It, therefore, follows that we should involve students in our work. We have an undergraduate student on our board, and our 14-member student panel includes undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as recent graduates and two prospective students. The President of the National Union of Students is a member, as well as a past President, and many others bring significant experience of representing students. The panel will be involved in work across the Office for Students, and help us to devise and embed a detailed student engagement strategy.
Along with our Chair, Sir Michael Barber, I have visited students’ unions across the country since my appointment. The discussions I have had have been inspiring, educative and challenging. We are an organisation with a clear strategy and plan, but we recognise that we do not hold the answers to every question. We will continue to engage – with students, of course, but also with employers, with universities and colleges, and with all those with an interest in higher education. I know that many MPs and Peers have a significant passion for, and knowledge of, higher education, and I will continue to welcome all opportunities to engage with you on some of the most significant issues for the future of our country.
These are challenging but hugely exciting times in which to study and graduate. We have a generation of highly motivated students entering a higher education system which is the envy of the world. There are tremendous opportunities for the sector to seize so that working together we can ensure that all students, whatever their background, have a fulfilling experience which enriches their lives and careers.
Nicola Dandridge is the chief executive of the Office for Students