by Robyn Banks

This week, the government took the turn of the year as an opportunity to quietly announce the makeup of the board of the Office for Students (OfS), the new higher education ‘market regulator’ set to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Naturally, it didn’t go unnoticed, and much has been said about the selection of Toby Young, infamous Tory party supporter. His appointment and the makeup of the rest of the board shows the absurdity at the heart of the body Jo Johnson has created, and why it will struggle to be taken seriously.

Johnson’s department has always said that the OfS will operate ‘in the interests of students’. One would assume that this would require it to have some student representation on its board. In fact there is just one student representative, and only after a major NUS campaign against initial intentions to ignore the student voice altogether. As it has turned out, the board includes eight higher education professionals and stakeholders: Ruth Carlson, a student of Surrey University; one sitting VC, Steve West from UWE; Carl Lygo, ex-VC from the BPP, a privately run university who specialise in ‘professional’ subjects; David Palfreyman, Director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies; Monisha Shah, chair of the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance; and three representatives of HEFCE.

the OfS board will be graced by the ex-boss of a company willing to profit off of those in need of emergency contraception

These people, who have some knowledge and experience of the higher education sector, are counterbalanced by the other, more controversial appointments. First we have the aforementioned Young who, alongside his well known support for the government and involvement in failing free school projects, has called children with learning disabilities or lower than average intelligence “troglodytes”, while scorning the equalities act. This appointment, however, isn’t necessarily the most absurd, nor the most concerning. Since Elizabeth Fagan left her position as managing director of Boots, it has been revealed that the chemist’s charged four times the cost price for the morning after pill under her tenure, because of concerns that they might be “incentivising inappropriate use” by reducing the price in line with other retailers. Yep, the OfS board will be graced by the ex-boss of a company willing to profit off of those in need of emergency contraception in the name of public moral good. Young and Fagan are joined by the former head of Public Affairs at HSBC, Katja Hall. In her two years at the bank, it found itself immersed in controversy for funding deforestation and otherwise supporting the industries driving climate change, actions which her team attempted to cover up. The board is rounded out by Simon Levine, head of a law firm, deputy chair Martin Coleman, a civil servant, and the chair Michael Barber, Former Special Adviser in the department of education.

In short, the board of the new office intended to operate in the interest of students is made up of a mishmash of, on the one hand, a variety of higher education professionals and, on the other, a selection of miscellaneous business people who know how to either make questionable profits or how to blow the horn in favour of the government. This mix of people will come with extremely differing views on how higher education should be run, but one thing is for certain. The choice of board members will have a defining effect on how this new ombudsman will view our universities, and how it will decide who gets to award degrees and how much funding they’ll get. Having people like Young and Fagan in there will help ensure that the government’s agenda to create a market in higher education is continually pushed, alongside Jo Johnson’s obsession with ‘free speech’. They will, hopefully, be counterbalanced by those who know a bit more about how higher education works and how it might be improved. In particular we can hope that the Office gives proper weight to the views of Carlson, who will be seeing first hand the devastating effects the current policy has been having on the system this body is meant to monitor and represent.

The choice of board members will have a defining effect on how this new ombudsman will view our universities

However, I have to admit that hope seems slim. The board has been made into a political tool by Johnson and the Tories to make sure that it represents the interests of the government, not those of students. Media coverage has focused on Young’s appointment, but many have passed over the other dodgy appointments, which should be just as foreboding. The stink of something fishy is already starting to creep out of the Office for Students, and no matter how hard the government try that smell isn’t going to come out easily, Young or no Young.

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