The Office for Students: What Is It?

The Office for Students (OfS) has been in the news a lot lately, mostly for all the wrong reasons, but what is the intended purpose of this new body?

The government intends the OfS to be a body which regulates the higher education marketplace which combines the old HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access. It will have the power to grant the university titles and the power to award degrees.

With many new private higher education institutions being set up in recent years, the OfS is intended to both encourage and regulate increased diversification in higher education. It will also have some powers over funding, apart from research grants.

It’s other responsibilities include the administration of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which grades the quality of teaching at universities which opt in. 

More controversially, it will also try to ensure that universities give freedom of speech to controversial speakers following Jo Johnson’s criticism of ‘no platforming’ policies and ‘safe spaces’ on campus.

However, the body has been dogged by controversy due to the makeup of its board. Toby Young’s well publicised and short lived tenure on the board (he only lasted 8 days before resigning) has tarnished the reputation of the OfS even before it comes into force in April.

It has also been criticised for only having one student on its board, engineering student Ruth Carlson. The NUS expressed fury at its exclusion from the board despite the appointment of several members who have no experience in or links with higher education.

The Labour peer Andrew Adonis has criticised the priorities of the OfS. Writing in The Guardian he argued that, “controversy over “shocking” speakers on campus is age-old. But compared with the crisis of student finance, and deep concern about top management pay and the value for money of student courses, this pales into insignificance.”

The Office for Students will become fully operational in April – we will see how this troubled beginning may have already undermined its effectiveness in the higher education sector.

Rabeeah Moeen and Ian White