Ah . . . another new year, another new super-regulator. On New Year’s Day the Office for Students, or OfS, came into being, a quango with something best described as a roving commission to look over universities’ shoulders at all they do. From 1 April, it will assume responsibility for licensing universities; for funding them, thus replacing the Higher Education Funding Council (apart from research money which goes to another superquango); for controlling student admissions in the interests of fairness; for watching over the quality of teaching; for protecting students’ interests, and ensuring freedom of speech. It has the power to fine institutions and ultimately to de-register them.
There is some good news here. The government has resisted the temptation to make the 15-strong board of OfS a collection of representatives of interest groups: a philosopher here, a fashionable fourth-wave professor of gender studies there, a UCU trade union representative and a post-doctoral researcher and so on. Indeed, it seems only five are insiders: a Vice Chancellor and an ex-VC from a couple of lower-tier institutions, an Oxford bursar who has actually defended the college system, and two academic bureaucrats, one from HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) and one (the boss, Nicola Dandridge) from Universities UK. The others are successful arts and business people, a number of corporate lawyers – and of course Toby Young. There is thus at least some chance of a robust attitude to such things as complaints about allegedly unfair admission procedures, and possibly some support for rigorous traditional courses over peace studies and the like.
Having said this, there are good reasons to be sceptical about whether this exercise in supervision by superquango is likely to do much good to the academic institutions it deals with, or for that matter to our universities as a whole.
First, even though some universities all too often regard students as cash cows to be fobbed off with the minimum provision they can get away with, it seems rather doubtful whether OfS’s talk of encouraging students to demand ‘value for money’ will do much to deal with this. Indeed it may end up as a cure worse than the disease. For one thing, the idea itself is rather incongruous here. Since even at £9,250 a year tuition fees are a mere contribution towards a service that actually costs a great deal more, the answer must be that universities are always good value to students, even if not to the taxpayer. But there is a more serious point. Ideally, studying at a university ought to be about subscribing, and belonging, to an institution dedicated to learning and research, so getting the opportunity to participate in the one and benefit from the other. Unfortunately, talking of ‘value for money’ merely encourages a belief that it is a straight cash transaction, like paying a hairdresser or buying a course in Pelmanism. Indeed it may go further and work against any tradition of free inquiry, by suggesting that once in a university you have the same grounds for complaint if someone says anything that offends you as you would have if insulted by a department store salesman. As one misguided academic actually said a few months ago, apparently with a straight face, ‘Why should a student who is paying £9,000 a year in fees have to waste their time having arguments with somebody about whether homophobia is wrong?’
Which immediately raises another point: teaching. Students used to learn quickly that it was as much their job to learn as the academic’s to teach. Academics (at least the competent ones) were busy people: on occasion they cancelled or moved lectures, and while happy to help on difficult points, on simple ones rightly dismissed students to look things up themselves.
One fears that this may not go down well at the new consumer-facing OfS. CEO Nicola Dandridge has already said, ominously, that research must not be pursued at the expense of students. On the contrary, students must always ask whether they are getting the support they need and the job opportunities they want. In addition, the OfS will be in charge of the massive bureaucratic box-ticking exercise known as the Teaching Excellence Framework. Little known outside academia, much of this deals not with the intellectual quality of lectures received, but with lazily measurable things such as how satisfied students feel on a scale of 1 to x and how they like their pastoral support; what steps the institution takes to stop them failing or dropping out; the comprehensiveness of written comments on the essays they write and how many hints they contain as to how to get the answer right next time (in uni-speak, the institution’s ‘feedback culture’) and so on. It is not difficult to see the likely outcome. Universities will, one fears, for their own protection prioritise safe low-grade teaching over adventurous speculation; laborious explanation over encouragement to independent thought, and pretty powerpoints (no doubt proudly described in some form as ‘innovative audiovisual pedagogical practice’) over originality or demandingness. This way they will get top marks for everything except what really matters for a proper university education, and some pro-vice-chancellor will no doubt get a bonus.
And what of Jo Johnson’s own recent favourite, free speech? The difficulty here is that, whatever its virtues, the OfS is not the obvious body for the job. For someone facing a recalcitrant student union demanding expensive security, prior sight of speeches and excision of triggering words, or a complaisant pro-vice-chancellor only too keen to appease Left-wing troublemakers by excluding awkward speakers, the remote presence of the OfS, and the equally remote possibility that it might sometime in the future fine the university for this particular lapse, is not much help. The only effective way to protect free speech effectively is on the ground: an immediate possibility of independent adjudication over whether the meeting goes ahead. But that, one suspects, would hardly fit in with the grand plans of our very grand Minister for Higher Education.