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The student voice at the heart of the system (but only when they’re thinking what we’re thinking)

  • 18 August 2021
  • By Andy Westwood

This week we will, in partnership with FE News, be running a selection of chapters from our recently released report , ‘What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say‘ edited by Michael Natzler, HEPI Policy Officer. Today’s piece is by Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester. Andy’s Twitter is @AndyWWestwood.

If this were an essay about the use of the term ‘students’ in higher education policy discourse – in political speeches from governments or oppositions, green and white papers or in the deluge of documents from regulators, other bodies or from universities themselves – then it might be a very different exercise. Students, in that sense at least, are everywhere.

In the last decade, the funding and regulatory system in England has been entirely reorganised in their name or in their supposed interests. But it is a very different proposition to try to assess where and to what extent the voices of students have been or are taken into account in forming policy. Here there is a clear mismatch between the two, a gap that has become more problematic over the past decade. It is something that urgently needs fixing, but does not look like it will be.

Co-creation had become fashionable in policymaking circles – especially some of the more wonkish ones in 2004. CK Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy, in The Future of Competition, defined co-creation as the ‘joint creation of value by the company and the customer; allowing the customer to co-construct the service experience to suit their context’. In 2010/11, the Coalition Government were keen to deploy such an approach, improving teaching and value for money by driving up competition and students acting more as consumers – and in the process, balancing market power away from universities.

This White Paper builds on that record, while doing more than ever to put students in the driving seat … So we will empower prospective students by ensuring much better information on different courses. We will deliver a new focus on student charters, student feedback and graduate outcomes.

These ideas of choice and competition in public services have been a feature of policy reform over the past three decades from New Labour to the present day (more or less). The spirit of choice and voice and a rebalancing of power from suppliers to consumers dates back to Tony Blair and extends to welfare reform and skills, as well as to the introduction and extension of university tuition fees.

More recently, it can be seen in the reforms introduced under the Coalition and then enhanced by Jo Johnson in the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) and in the setting up of the Office for Students. As his 2016 white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy stated:

the market needs to be re-oriented and regulated proportionately – with an explicit primary focus on the needs of students, to give them choices about where they want to study, as well as what and how. This Government has therefore chosen to put choice for students at the heart of its higher education reform strategy.

That period then saw the acceleration of the architectural reforms introduced under David Willetts and Vince Cable. The rhetoric of the student voice was ramped up but so too were concerns about free speech, marked by Jo Johnson appointing Toby Young to the new Office for Students board. The howl of protests greeting that might not be heard so sympathetically today. The Office for Students does now have a student panel (who first met in 2018). Although this is a welcome step, it still seems to carry significantly less weight in policy delivery than the regulators and consumer lawyers appointed to the Office for Students to act in the student interest.

This brings us to the latest phase in higher education policymaking and essentially to a new Conservative Government led by former shadow Higher Education Minister, Boris Johnson, and his only Education Secretary so far, Gavin Williamson. The overall direction of higher education policy at the time of writing remains unclear. We do not really know whether this is a Government that is quite as keen on competition and the animating role of student choice or whether it thinks a regulatory approach as embodied by the Office for Students is the right one. Both of these things may be tackled in autumn 2021 where we are promised both a full response to the Augar report and the Spending Review.

What we do know is that this is a Government that is prepared to pick arguments with the sector – both universities and students’ unions. And it looks to be rather less concerned about dialogue or evidenced arguments (if running contrary to what they wish to do or say).

There are two important aspects to this which are directly related to each other. The first is relatively recent and it is the Minister’s increasingly hostile agenda towards the National Union of Students (NUS) and students’ unions, especially on free speech and so-called ‘woke’ or ‘cancel’ culture. It plays well among Conservative supporters – especially since the EU Referendum and the polarisation of politics around place, age and education levels, particularly between graduates and non-graduates. Ministers enjoy repeatedly playing to these galleries. Universities and students are, after all, part of a ‘left-leaning’, ‘remain elite’. They are then more characterised as political opponents rather than as co-creators of policy.

Furthermore, there are extra incentives to do this when there are pressures elsewhere such as on exam plans, ‘catch-up’ funding or on many instances of poor decision making during the pandemic. In this case, a headline on ‘woke students’ or university regulations quickly becomes a ‘red meat’ avoidance or deflection strategy. You can see this every time Department for Education Ministers answer questions in Parliament. With continuing chaos in education, last minute or late decisions on schools, colleges and universities and crisis after crisis on funding, health and exams, this has always been a welcome distraction. Criticising universities, their expansion and campus culture allow respite from the pressures of day-to-day policymaking during COVID-19. As Michelle Donelan recently found time to say, ‘The 2004 access regime has let down too many young people … [and] taken advantage of – particularly those without a family history of going to university’. Or Gavin Williamson warning against the ‘chilling effect’ of ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring’ in universities when unveiling measures to protect free speech.

There is also a growing spatial element to the culture war. After the local and mayoral elections in May 2021, the Conservatives are tightening their political control of England and ‘doubling down on levelling up’. According to the Sunday Times on 9 May 2021, this means a new focus on towns and local economies, with Boris Johnson promising to ‘stop the brain drain to cities’.

That runs pretty much in the opposite direction to most higher education policies put in place over the last decade. It is not obvious where student choice fits or whether ministers will now try and enhance their voice in the provision of higher education in ‘left behind’ places.

This brings us to a second issue and one that has been relevant over a rather longer period. The existing higher education model has always had a clear vision of how students should act and influence the system since its beginning. In the main, that is as a rational economic actor making decisions and consuming higher education much like products and services in other markets. This does create demand and interest in student voice but only in the way that its architects and regulators think it should – that is making rational economic choices, exerting consumer rights on value and making complaints accordingly.

Attitudes to students (and universities) during the pandemic have exacerbated both of these issues; late or incomplete decision making from the Department for Education, university students treated differently to those in colleges or schools and their interests ‘traded off’ against others, for example on returning to campus during the roadmap out of lockdown. Throughout the pandemic, there have been inadequate levels of financial support when the principle elsewhere in government has been to support individuals or organisations required to lockdown and stay at home. NUS or student voices have also been missing from meetings or taskforces assembled by ministers.

But responding to student concerns has been weak – either batted down to institutions or largely ignored. The regulatory and funding model has allowed the Government to stand back and to delay or avoid important decisions. Worse perhaps is using this opportunity to pursue or explore other agendas more actively instead, such as the limiting of student numbers, reducing public funding or introducing free speech legislation. Throughout, the Government and its agencies seem to have been much more interested in the voices that agree with and reinforce any of these agendas than those requiring immediate and practical help during the pandemic. If anything is at the ‘heart of the system’, it is these political and cognitive biases or those that might share them.

So where do we go from here? To a new phase of co-created policy in the student interest? Perhaps hearing even more from those voices currently at the margins of policymaking – from older adults and part-timers or from those in or from under-represented places? But the Government remains distrustful and uninterested in this kind of dialogue. Voice and co-creation entail compromise and a flexibility that simply does not fit the current political environment.

Even if we put prejudice, ‘culture wars’ and ‘levelling up’ to one side, we still have government ministers that believe student satisfaction is too high, too many students are making the wrong decisions and that too many are doing full-time degrees in the wrong subjects and at the wrong institutions. Neither the National Student Survey nor the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) have confirmed the ‘right’ answers and so they must be reformed too.

Chris Cook, writing about the NHS, described ‘a fragile state’ and a regime ill-prepared for the pandemic. He could have easily been writing about universities. A system that incentivises the recruitment of more full-time residential students moving around the country through the year and then demands that they are taught online to the same levels of quality and value for money has been far from ideal. Students in the system have been telling them this but the Government, with its suspicions, political agenda and lack of any policy alternatives does not want to change. And does not really want to listen.

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1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Professor Westwood is right in saying Government strategy and policy on HE and in particular, Universities, is confusing.

    The problem with involving more students is that students don’t have a clear message about the policies they want. Different students want different things from their Universities.

    At the heart of the student choice, value for money issues, there is a major problem with the current system. The idea of Students as Consumers will never work while there is only one market price of £9,200 a year for all courses at all Universities.

    If the Government want students to make the “right choices” about courses and institutions we need dynamic pricing to drive market forces.

    The other difficulty is that the different courses at different institutions mean that the “product” on offer is, in reality, thousands of different products.

    In addition, the student consumers / customers lack the information for rational decision making as they don’t fully understand what they will be getting when the open the “degree box” package they have applied for.

    Buying a degree has become a “lucky dip”. No wonder there is confusion and disappointment from many people.

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