A shaky start for the Office for Students
By Dan Beynon
A week is a (very) long time in politics, the Department for Education and the Office for Students…
Just minutes after we all toasted the arrival of 2018 (and those of us closely involved with Higher Education celebrated the end of a fairly grisly 2017) the DfE revealed the previously embargoed details of who’s on the Board of the new Office for Students (OFS).
You can read all about the OFS and it’s role both here on Ri5’s piece from last week and also in an excellent and detailed overview from Catherine Boyd on Wonkhe.
Now this New Year communication could (and should) have been the first in a series of exciting and positive messages designed to engage everyone with the new organisation and all that it aims to offer everyone involved in Higher Education, whether students, institutions or otherwise. Although the specific responsibilities of the new OFS have been the cause of much debate, at its’ heart is a desire to unify the set of organisations charged with regulating UKHE and to do so in such a way as to put consumers front and centre.
However, the moment the nomination of Toby Young to the OFS Board was announced the DfE removed any chance of the new OFS getting the sort of positive coverage that the sector and the government would have wanted. Instead, and quite rightly in many people’s minds, there has been a week of uproar as to the inappropriateness of Young’s appointment culminating in his resignation and the departure of Justine Greening and Jo Johnson. If you missed reading about Toby Young’s damning back catalogue and suitability for the post you can do that here and you can read his own defence of his suitability in a mammoth set of tweets here. Jo Johnson had just spoken in defence of Young in the House of Commons before he left his post.
It’s a real shame it ever came to this. I am totally baffled by the thinking behind the decision to appoint someone so divisive and distracting to a position on the new Board. It’s an appointment that was always going to cause huge controversy and even cursory due diligence would have revealed that. The OFS Board is a group of talented and engaged people and if Toby Young was appointed specifically to find someone with experience of developing free schools then that could have been achieved through selecting another candidate.
Most concerning however are the other big questions the last week in Westminster prompts. Was this a deliberate act of self-harm on behalf of those designing the new organisation? Was it simply a lack of due diligence? Why did the Chair of the OFS not object to the appointment as he was very quick to support Young’s removal? Are all the changes symptomatic of a big disconnect between the PM’s office, the DfE, the OFS and the consumers and stakeholders they will be representing and regulating? Watch this space…
I hope the OFS can get through this messy start to 2018 and go on to offer the sector the support, advice, regulation and challenge that it so badly needs in such a crucial period for our fantastic Universities. I think it can.