Office for Students could transform the higher education sector
During the review of post-18 education and funding, a sustained and strong response from the higher education sector is needed to communicate to government, parliament, and the public that systemic change is here to stay, says Dods Political Consultant Thomas Scarff.
The debate on student finances re-ignited during the 2017 General Election has transpired not to be a flash in the pan but a watershed moment for the higher education sector. The Faustian pact between universities and the Coalition Government that delivered the divisive 2012 reforms to student financing, allowing the sector to weather the storm of austerity, has culminated in this radical transformation informed by genuine public interest around value for money in a system now principally financed by students.
In a winter-swept Westminster, the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah, addressed the launch event for the Office for Students and vowed that the “annus horribilis” suffered by the higher education sector was not a seasonal blip but truly the “winds of change.” The pathetic fallacy was certainly not lost on the audience from the “venerated institutions” at the centre of this political maelstrom as they heard the minister’s prophetic vision for a new age, “the age of the student.”
The funding settlement achieved in 2012 has allowed UK universities to maintain and enhance their status as a superpower in global higher education. Despite this, there is a perception that far from being beneficiaries of this status, students were not at the heart of the system. Whilst lifting the cap on student numbers enabled more from deprived backgrounds to enter higher education, the reforms had unintended consequences for part-time and mature students acting to offset this progress.
The establishment of the OfS and their remit as a regulator for the higher education sector seeks to correct this perception and preside over a system that can benefit both institutions, maintaining their status as global leaders, and students, in truly shaping the system they fund. As Mr Gyimah outlined, the regulator has “real teeth” to enforce conditions and hold higher education providers to account for failings. However, as political and public debate continues to evolve on the correct amount of oversight that Government and the OfS should have of higher education, it is still unclear how this regulator will exercise these new powers come April.
The launch of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding is central to this uncertainty, with the political impartiality of the OfS already being questioned in the Commons, the outcome of the review due to report in early 2019 could further transform the sector with the regulator potentially being given a new set of teeth.
The terms of reference clearly defines the remit of Chair, Philip Augurs’, independent panel as “its recommendations must be consistent with the Government's fiscal policies to reduce the deficit and have debt falling as a percentage of GDP.” Whilst these terms restrict the scope of insight some in the sector had called for, it is hardly surprising considering the political constraints on the UK Government during turbulent Brexit negotiations. With significant government bandwidth otherwise occupied elsewhere, this is a story the Government may think they can control. As a government led review, considerably swayed by public and media scrutiny, these circumstances pose the potential of serious ramifications if ensuing news cycles continue to erode confidence in the sector.
Parliamentary and public scrutiny can already be seen to have compelled action from leading sector bodies to tackle some of the issues that have arisen since the 2012 reforms, such as a sharp decline in part-time provision, tackling mental health the ongoing press derision around Vice-Chancellor pay.
However, there will need to be a sustained and strong response from the sector to communicate to government, parliament and most importantly the public that they are listening and systemic change is here to stay. Otherwise, there is no telling where these winds of change will blow.
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