The Office for Students, the new regulator for Higher Education Institutions in England, was launched on New Year’s day this year. In the first days since it was formed, much focus has been on one member of its board – Toby Young. Whilst all evidence suggests that Mr Young is an insufficiently qualified opportunist, with a history of tweeting particularly inappropriate and sexist remarks about women’s bodies and what he’d like to do to them, it’s important to remember this is not the main story, but a symptom of the main story.
For nearly a decade, the conservative government have mounted a sustained campaign to undermine Universities in the UK.(1*) Through two elections and the Brexit referendum campaigns, this government has dismissed expertise, and exploited a broader culture of anti-intellectualism to position universities as out of touch, elitist and riven with left wing ideology. (Anyone who works in UK universities will confirm that whilst they generally have a reasonably liberal culture, they are far from a feminist, lefty paradise – quite the opposite!).
The role of The Office for Students is to regulate the sector and drive up standards. Standards in UK universities are already pretty high – for a small country, we hit well above our weight in international league tables. “Driving up standards” is fairly transparent code for privatisation and marketisation. Whilst universities are accused of being ‘ideologically driven’, it is clear that this attempt at regulation is a barely disguised attempt to restructure university governance along neoliberal ideological principles.
The Office for Students has been established with negligible meaningful consultation with students, academics, or professional service staff. The board is comprised of six former HEFCE board members (5 men, 1 woman), Toby Young (failed founder of a free school, and ragtag journalist who was fired by Vanity Fair), Katja Hall (public relations for HSBC), Elizabeth Fagan (former marketing director and managing director of Boots), Monisha Shah (who has held a number of prominent public and advisory roles), and Simon Levine, (former CE of an international law firm). It is chaired by Michael Barber, with Nicola Dandridge as CEO. Whilst I am open to correction, a google search suggests that they do not have a doctoral degree between them.
Strikingly absent from the board is any representation from the National Union of Students, or unions representing University staff (academic or professional services). It is here, I believe, that our collective ire should be focused – the complete failure to ensure adequate representation of the people most affected by the work of this board. It is an attack on collective bargaining, on the independence of universities, on academic freedom, and and on universities’ ability to organise and manage themselves.
For too long, we have tolerated the relentless anti-intellectualism of this government. We really have to draw a line today. We must resist. We must insist on adequate and transparent representation. We must reclaim our expertise, our confidence in what we know and what we do. They have kicked our platform out from under us, and we must take it back. As academics, as students, we have a right to have a say in the management of our own universities. We need to reclaim our right to speak.
1* The Office for Students was established to regulate only English universities. However, this sustained attack on academic freedoms and academic expertise has a more far reaching impact that affects the higher education institutions of all four nations of the UK..