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.

48 COMMENTS

  1. Bad news is that any new Quango will inevitably be packed with the same Common Purpose, left-wing Nomenklatura. See the storm that the appointment of just one heretic like Toby Young has caused. There is almost no ideological diversity in any Quango because the appointments process is controlled by the Nomenklatura. We need to fix the route cause of the problem first, but I can’t see how we can do that without a new form of legislation to ensure some kind of political balance in appointments to these bodies.

    • My only disagreement with your comment would be ” a new form of legislation to ensure some kind of political balance in appointments to these bodies”.
      Universities should be privatised and those that go under, go under. We need less quangos not more. At the end of the day this quango will achieve 3 things: jobs for the girls; bums on seats and a lowering of the value of a degree.

      • Exactly, universities used to fund themselves. In taking the government shilling, they have become government poodles, like an extension of secondary schools rather than bastions of independent thinkers.

        • Quite. We don’t want or need “political balance”. We don’t need political anything. Just people who are concerned with educating young people without fear or favour.

        • Universities were never ‘bastions of independent thinkers’. I went to one in 1992 not to learn about independent thought but because I was interested in English literature and, more importantly, because I wanted to get out of the horrific small town where I had grown up. University was simply a means to an end and if I’d had to subscribe to some set of principles with my signature or sing the Red Flag each morning, I’d cheerily have done it.

          • I’ll stay with the one English cemetery (other than Westminster Abbey’s floor) that I want to visit. It’s just outside Cambridge, and it’s where some real men, heroes even, are buried. They are American airmen several thousand of them, who died fighting Germany, and in so doing helped to save Britain, two things worth dying for, and as is always the case, living for.

          • I’m talking about before then. My parents met at Edinburgh in the early 60s – Dad was on a grant from Fife Council (to train for teaching) and Mum was being paid for by her family and living at home. I’m a 5th generation graduate (mainly Edinburgh, although I went to Strathclyde), including 4th generation of ladies (Great grandmother, grandmother, mother, me). When I went in 1983 I was the first in the family to get a central govt grant.

          • I got my degree in 1995, five years after the notional cutoff point which, rightly, suggests that all non-technical degrees awarded after 1990 are worthless. Things may have been different by then, but I don’t remember any politics beyond the usual suspects getting batey about issues nobody cared about in the students’ union. Most people went to get a degree and to party.

          • True, but universities are supposed to be about research as well, to come up with new ideas. It’s not just about educating young people.

            In my own field, the fact that most scientific research in universities is now done by PhD candidates means that sustained exploration over 5, 10 years or more, or conversely shorter research projects aren’t being done because they aren’t fundable. And don’t get me started on smart alec lecturers who write a plausible research application and get funding over better research; or the fact that pc projects get funding over basic research…

            Luckily, there is a lot of good work done in industry solving practical problems quietly, totally ignored by modern academia, and usually all the better for it.

          • I had my own objectives in mind, which is perhaps narrow, but I can see why people think that universities are a hotbed of leftwing politics when, in actual fact, few people care. They aren’t there to get involved in any poundshop politician antics and seem to regard the ones who are with a kind of pity.

          • It’s not the students that are mainly the unreconstructed lefties, it’s the lecturers. You’ve been bathing in a sea of socialism at university without even realising it!

          • I did English lit, love. One of my lecturers was a Marxist. The rest of the time, politics was the preserve of other, more boring people.

          • I did the subject and didn’t ask them. None of my work involved politics and that wasn’t why I was there.

          • In fact, your whole paradigm at university would be lefty – the assumptions, the language, the inferences drawn etc. Socialism is very pervasive.

          • I’m a non-voting former left-winger who would rather eat a bowl of cold sick than vote for Corbyn.

          • Good for you! But your posts suggest that you still hold a lot of leftie assumptions about how the world works. Hopefully you’ll find some of our views on here quite interesting.

          • Well, maybe you can help me.

            Most people here recognise that capitalism, the system under which we live, rewards people who adopt a somewhat austere attitude to others’ claim on money obtained through general taxation. Fair enough. But at the same time, we’re told things such as ‘we’re all in it together’ and ‘we must all pull in the same direction’ which suggest that people are now trying to inculcate some sense of collective identity and overarchinh loyalty. What gives?

          • Theres nothing wrong with collective identity eg family, place and ultimately country. Pulling together is good, on a local and personal and voluntary level. But high levels of national tax prevent this both directly and indirectly (keeping net incomes low, and preventing the build up of wealth over generations). This is compounded when taxes are often distributed to unworthy or even frivolous causes. As Colkitto said the other day, if the politicians, civil service and media all took a month off, would anyone notice?

          • I’m not sure you can simultaneously have a group identity and yet also be in it for yourself. At some point, you have to choose.

      • I totally agree. There are one or two truly Independent universities who concentrate on the sciences and they are highly successful. As students are expected to pay towards their education, it might be a good idea to take all public involvement away. Allow businesses and educationalists to set up universities to provide further education with a view to moving on to full time work within those or similar companies. Then we could also have private universities similar to the original Open University parameters whereby people could pay for extra study for the joy of wanting to learn about history of art, or techniques from the original portrait painters etc. Something personal without Expecting a job at the end.

  2. Oh dear yet another columnist who has failed to read between the lines and smell the coffee. This is not an anti censorship quango, it is pro censorship! Headed by a Labour edgeukashone guy from one of the most lunatic leftie councils in the country, Haringey, the one which handled the Baby P case so ‘effectively’.

    Lets take a look at the man they’ve chosen to head it Sir Michael Barber. This is his Wikipedia entry:

    “Barber worked in the education department of the National Union of Teachers. As a member of the Labour Party, he was elected to the council of the London Borough of Hackney, becoming chair of the education committee. In 1987 he contested for Labour the seat of Henley-on-Thames, then held by Michael Heseltine.”

    Johnson has put so many woolly undefined reasons where censorship may be applied that it will be possible for a university to prevent any speaker they please whenever it suits them and still stay within the rules.

    The four categories being ‘hate’ an undefined unquantifiable descriptor, it is what ever the victim perceives it to be. Not so long ago a university professor reported the then home secretary to the political correctness enforcement squad (formerly known as ‘the police’) for a speech on immigration which hadn’t at the time he reported it been given, nor did he have any insight into what it was going to be about.
    This is of course a recipe for disaster.

    ‘Discrimination’ a word which is supposed to be defined in law as treatment different to on the grounds of race, sex, age etc etc, but which has been thoroughly hijacked to mean anything those on the left want it to mean, including now subconscious discrimination, which no one even knows they are doing – this one really is thought crime!

    ‘Extremism’ Well you tell me what this is?? Apparently it’s not extremist for a Muslim preacher to lecture on the correct Islamic way to murder Gays, nor how to beat your wife correctly according to the Qur’an, but it is extremist to criticise these preachers unless you are a member of the stoodents union and your criticism has been pre approved by them.

    ‘Racism’ Another meaningless word which defies definition. It can be anything you want it to be, literally. As an example snow is racist, as are milk, sandwiches, and trees !
    The university would be quite within its remit to ban speakers from catering, the milk marketing board, meteorologists, and arboriculturalists.

    The long & the short of it is (and even that could be classed as hate speech) that now this board has been set up, the universities are legitimised in banning anything they please on one of the four get outs which are so sloppy they defy definition.

    Far from being a charter for free speech it is the opposite, a charter to oppress and censor any speech the establishment doesn’t like.
    We were better off with the Lord chancellors office !

    • Yet another Labourite ideologue appointed and empowered by a supposedly “Conservative” government. Presumably the goons running this government think that will persuade lefties to vote for them. Terminally stupid.

  3. Even when quangos are set up for a good purpose it does not take long for that purpose to be subverted. OFSTED was set up many years ago in order to make sure that children were actually learning things. Before that a teacher could write in a school report “little Johnny is making steady progress” even though his parents knew he could not read or write. Now, however, OFSTED exists to ensure that “Little Johnny” learns about transgenderism or whatever other left-wing lunacy that is flavour of the month.

    The new quango will probably be captured by the PC establishment in the same way. That is why they have been making such a fuss about Michael Gove’s appointment.

    • In true Cameroon fashion, scolding the Tory party’s friends and unsuccessfully smooching their enemies. May takes stupidity to all new levels. Instead of emulating Thatcher she is intent on being Harriet Harmon.

      • Chamberlain and the appeasers seems more accurate. After the “pestminister” debacle in which she ended up sacking her best ally over pretty much nothing, one would have thought she’s have realised they keep coming back for more if you feed them with victories. I despair.

    • Mrs May is virtue signalling to please her leftwing friends. She really needs to grow up and actually start acting like a leader instead of a prude. She works in one of the most sexist, rudest and misogynistic professions. The influx of angry specimens who profess to be women has created an environment of mock outrage that real women can only despair of as they see golden opportunities being wasted to truly change everyone’s lives for the better.

  4. Corporate lawyers, eh? Just the chaps with their risk averse, defensively litigious and small print mindset to champion freedom of speech! “Je suis Charlie . . . subject to . . . etc., etc.”

    Marginally better than those destroyers of common sense the human rights lawyers I suppose, but really all lawyers should be in a supporting consultative role as bean counters should, not decision making. Let the amateurs with no axe to grind make the decisions. Otherwise you get dweebs like Justin Welby in charge.

  5. Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: “In continuing to defend
    Mr Young when the Party needs to appeal to women and young people, we
    risk alienating those we need to re-engage with to win the next
    Election.”

    Never mind conservative principles just the need to “appeal” to marketing manufactured identity groups. And another who doesn’t understand that trying to “appeal” to one set of identity groups who would probably never vote Tory anyway whilst utterly alienating others who always have may not be a great strategy.

    • The Conservatives have to learn the hard way that if they are afraid to be conservative they already lost.Many of us wish them to fail and fall apart this next election.

      • And you get a Corbyn government. I’m a former lefty who still has occasional contact with some of his principles and even I don’t want that.

        • But we have some of those principles now with mass migration, gender -fluid compliant government courtesy of Morgan, diversity departments in NHS costing millions, bigger government etc
          The nationalisation of rail would be a good thing, so would land tax.Hence vote Corbyn.

  6. The danger with any quango is that it will be captured by professional quangocrats, if it isn’t packed with such from the very outset. What happens then is that the quango’s responsibilities get not-so-subtly reinterpreted, to the extent that the quango soon is doing the opposite of what was originally intended (intended, at any rate, by the minister involved). The fuss around Toby Young’s involvement is already symptomatic of what we can expect. Supposing, for instance, Channel 4’s Jon Snow (Liverpool, did not graduate) had been put forward, rather than Young, would the Blob have been in uproar?

    The OfS does seem to leave itself wide open to this kind of subversion, since all of its functions are so ill-defined. What, for example, are “fair admissions”? Some of us may be naive enough to think that universities should be encouraging the most promising candidates, but words acquire strange new meanings in the groves of Academe and “fairness” is no exception. I suspect that “fairness” means enforcing what the Americans call “affirmative action”; if it doesn’t already, it soon will. Far from being fair, admissions will be weighted by political considerations. Officially deprived postcodes will trump desirable ones; state education will be preferred to the independent sector; candidates whose parents attended university will be penalised. Favoured ethnic minorities will leapfrog whites and the unfashionable minorities (ethnic Chinese always end up at the unfairness end of the fairness spectrum, in these exercises).

    The question of opposing teaching to research is problematical, too. This has a fairly long history, since universities have been challenged, for quite a while, to prove their worth by the quantity of research published by their faculty staff. Since every discipline has at least one notorious periodical of last resort, which will publish absolutely anything, assessing academic excellence by the avoirdupois method always belonged in the pages of Swift.

    Now, however, the pendulum seems to have swung a long way too far in the opposite direction. If universities are not doing research, they are nothing more than glorified remedial schools. Universities with bloated bureaucracies are paring academic staff to the bone, on the basis that departments can be reduced to the status of conveyor-belts. The university gets the tuition fees and the students receive something they believe to amount to tuition. Contrary to what Andrew Tettenborn says, I believe some university administrators are confident of balancing the books this way: minimal levels of teaching staff, no research worthy of the name and an intellectually sterile environment in which the undergrads duly tick the right boxes in their opinion surveys and are rewarded with degrees.

    Three years of spoon-feeding does not amount to a university education. We can’t be surprised that undergraduates download their essays verbatim, when they are told to believe that there is only one answer to any question. Why would they trouble to stay up late, drink potentially lethal quantities of caffeine and think through their own arguments, when someone else has already done all that stuff?

    And then there is free speech. In an age when one can pillage Selfridges without consequence, but be dragged in by the Rozzers for disrespecting a pathologically murderous Bedouin paederast from the seventh century, freedom of speech really has entered the realms of doublethink. I don’t trust a quango to defend free speech. Instead, the quango will act according to its own definition of freedom; far from defending genuine free speech, it will soon be reinforcing the speech codes, safe spaces and all the other roadblocks to independent thought which the left has been devising for decades.

    On the plus-side, I do acknowledge that I am a pessimist (if there is a plus-side).

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