This week we are, in partnership with FE News, 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‘. Today’s piece is by Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer and editor of the collection. Michael is on Twitter @Michael_Natzler
Over a fortnight in June 2021, I interviewed six of the 15 members of the Office for Students’ Student Panel. Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the Office for Students, wrote, shortly before the Panel’s launch in 2018, that ‘effective student engagement has to be an integral part of our strategy’ and that the Student Panel can ‘define their own agenda in the context of our regulatory responsibilities and priorities’. All of the interviews were recorded individually on Zoom and it was agreed prior to speaking that all conversations would be anonymised.
Panellists reported similar reasons for wanting to join the Panel with many coming from a student representation background. One joined ‘to make sure that student voice is part of the decision-making process’ while another relished the fact that ‘you can actually speak to them directly and they can hear what you are saying’. For another, it was to represent an area which ‘other outlets of student voice were not representing’.
Every panellist was very positive about the work setting. They cited the ‘inspirational’ ‘passionate team’ at the Office for Students and the ‘inclusive’, ‘respectful and open space’ enabling them ‘to really share’.
How do they describe their work?
The focus of all panellists’ descriptions of their main responsibilities was the online four-hour meetings they have four times a year. They consist of discussions of set agenda items, break-out discussions and a question and answer session at the end without the Office for Students’ staff, where the Panel can raise anything for the Panel Chair to feed back. All the panellists mentioned their WhatsApp group, the meetings they have with the Minister for Universities and additional opportunities to engage with various policymakers.
Reflecting on the meetings, each panellist highlighted they have ‘niches’ that apply to certain areas, for example, the Panel includes an A-Level student, a mature student and a recent graduate. In each case they reported feeling ‘confident’ and ‘welcome’ to contribute to discussions with a general consensus that the Panel ‘defer to the person … who has got the most experience with that particular topic’.
Panellists talked about their approach to the role of providing student input. Those still in higher education were similar in saying they felt ‘quite integrated … so it’s quite easy to just get feedback from people’. Some report having consulted specialist student officers at their higher education institution to ‘talk to their forum [of people they represent] and get feedback’ when the topics were less familiar to them and ‘Facebook forums’ were mentioned by two panellists. Two panellists said they wanted to be able to speak to more students, with one panellist suggesting granting panellists some limited access to the topics raised in the notification system which the Office for Students runs, where students in England can register concerns about their higher education provider. The panellists are all keen to meet students on campus when COVID restrictions allow it.
Each panellist described their roles with various nuances:
It is about putting your opinion, your views, your experiences and those of other people that you have spoken to into the conversation.
A term used by all was ‘consultant’. Half the panellists said their role included being a ‘representative’ too, but there was caution around the word: ‘I think of us as consultants rather than representatives because we were not elected’. No panellist considered the Panel to be wholly representative or a representative body. Others drew the distinction between representatives ‘coming up with campaigns’ and the Panel’s role of ‘saying what students think’. Another said ‘although representing is not the right word, we are representing our specific area’. Two panellists referred to their roles as ‘critical friends’ of the Office for Students and another used the term ‘neutral disruptor’. Most of the panellists reflected that engaging the Panel alone was not enough and there was ‘a need’ for ‘other forms of [student] engagement’.
In some conversations the role of the National Union of Students (NUS) and students’ unions came up, having been mentioned as examples of centres of the student voice. One panellist said:
We’re not trying to be another NUS and people who maybe are not as familiar with our work might kind of perceive it as that.
Many of the panellists put the distinction down to the political nature of the NUS: one panellist said the NUS and the Panel are ‘in effect saying similar things … with politics out of the way’. Another panellist said the Panel can ‘advocate for students without being political … the NUS will always be political by nature’.
How are the Panel meetings run?
Panellists reported a balance between discussion of items on and off the agenda, with the general feeling being that the meetings were ‘good’ or ‘great’ and that the Panel are ‘steered to kind of what we need to be talking about, but also we do have the opportunity to raise some other issues’. A second panellist said:
[The agendas] designed for those meetings cover areas that we can meaningfully engage with. There is no point in us raising things that are not on the table for discussion or that there is not active post engagement work going on for.
A third panellist found it frustrating ‘always getting [given] a set agenda … [and] it would be a lot more empowering if we were asked what the topics should be’ suggesting it would be useful to have a ‘better induction’ into ‘the official duties of the Office for Students under the Higher Education and Research Act … and the grey areas we can’t regulate on’, referring to the legislation that outlines the Office for Students’ regulatory remit. They continued, ‘I don’t think we’re consulted enough on policy. I think we are consulted on projects … more like workstreams’. Panellists were in agreement that on some topics they are consulted once and others more than once.
Two panellists said they always heard back after the meetings on points which could not be resolved immediately: ‘they are good at closing the feedback loop’. Two other panellists said there had not been an occasion when they needed an answer. One panellist expressed frustration at not hearing back about points they raised: ‘sometimes when you give feedback it can just hang in the air … I don’t want to be the person chasing it five times’. Another panellist said ‘It is really important that those who are involved really definitely get to see the outcome [of their input] without having to necessarily find it elsewhere’ and wanted the Office for Students to ‘make it really clear what has happened as a result [of their input]’.
All panellists shared reflections about the impact and outcome of their feedback, acknowledging that impact is complicated to track and attribute. One panellist said instead of tracking outcomes, they focus on ‘getting their views across’. Two panellists said they did not always know whether they had impact, as some areas they worked on were very specific to higher education, which they followed ‘only to an extent’.
A theme that emerged from every single interview was the desire for more engagement. One panellist noted with 15 panellists ‘if we meet [for] four hours, four times a year, everyone will barely get one hour to speak’. Other panellists spoke about their capacity in relation to time and resource: ‘A lot of the time it comes down to resources and what we actually have the time and capability to achieve’ and said they had seen growing engagement from people consulting the Panel who might not have had ‘much experience working with students … and how helpful their input is’. Another panellist said ‘If there was resource, it would be great if [meetings] were once a month’ acknowledging that the Panel are sometimes not consulted between meetings on smaller pieces of work due to time commitment issues. Two other panellists suggested their work as representatives could be taken as a ‘module’, with one saying that representative roles:
have shown me far more than my academic work … a lecture hasn’t changed my perspectives … and it hasn’t taught me new skills.
Meetings with the Minister for Universities
Every panellist mentioned the meetings with the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan. They were described positively by all panellists as a ‘significant achievement’, a ‘big step’ and ‘meaningful’. These meetings were described consistently by panellists. One panellist said:
A quick welcome and round the table of hellos … she might ask us about one pressing question … and then there might be a kind of last 15 minutes for open Q&A where we can raise issues directly with her.
Panellists explained why they felt the meetings were important, that they ‘have the ear of people that make decisions’. Another panellist said ‘It’s so important that they are listening and that they’re willing to listen’.
Connection to other parts of the Office for Students
Every panellist was positive about the connection to the rest of the Office for Students and all panellists mentioned the two way mentorship programme between panellists and Board members, with a panellist noting the Chief Executive as ‘very, very good’. One panellist suggested there might be more ways for ‘cross-pollination’ of ideas between the Panel and the
Board and there was room to ‘strengthen the feedback loop and communication’. Another panellist described the recent opportunity to learn about and meet the Board members as ‘really lovely’: [There was] a bit of a Q&A with them and they kind of explain their background and what their reasons are for being on the Office for Students Board.
Panellists were positive about their experiences throughout the interviews and offered constructive feedback about how they might contribute more effectively as members of the Student Panel. The most consistent points raised were:
- the panellists feel their work is important, fulfilling and they feel supported and keen to continue to engage with the Minister for Universities, the Office for Students’ Board and with more students;
- many of the panellists want to get more involved and have more opportunities to engage with the Office for Students’ work than is currently offered; and
- many of the panellists feel they could feed into the policymaking process at an earlier stage and help set and co-create priorities for the Office for Students. The author would like to thank the panellists for giving their time and sharing their experiences.