(From left) Jo Johnson, Nicola Dandridge and Toby YoungComposite: Louis Ashworth

On Monday, the Office for Students (OfS) – a new, government-created regulator designed to champion the interests of student in higher education – came into effect.

The OfS has been set the task of implementing parts of the government’s controversial Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which has thus far notably produced a proposed increase in tuition fees, and the introduction of a ranking system for UK universities.

Higher education (HE) reform is a complex process, not least because of the huge diversity of stakeholder organisations, many of which have overlapping interests. Arguments about value for money for students have long been at heart of HE debate, particularly spurred by the increase in fees to £9,000 a year which took place in 2012.

Recently, those discussion have become increasingly tied up with other debates, particularly surrounding pay for senior university staff, and issues surrounding free speech on university campuses.

How does the OfS fit into this?

The OfS is intended at its core to promote choice for students, and to ensure that those who attend universities in the UK are receiving good value for money on their education, with the aim that it be: “innovative in its approach to student participation, success and employability”. In the light of recent debates however, the Department for Education (DfE) has said the OfS “will also hold universities to account over issues such as vice-chancellor pay and free speech.”


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Once it is fully operational, in April this year, the OfS will replace two existing HE bodies: the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which is responsible for distributing funding across HE providers; and the Office for Fair Access (Offa), which works with HE providers to develop access targets.

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said the OfS “will rightfully put the interests of students at the heart of regulation and play a pivotal role in reforming one of our nation’s greatest assets – the higher education sector.”

The OfS will be a regulator, which means it will have the ability to report and make recommendations, rather than extensive direct powers. The DfE says the new body will “shine a light on the grade inflation that we have seen tearing through the system and play a central role in pressing institutions to respect student’s rights and comply with consumer law consistently across the sector” through its implementation of TEF.

Who is involved?

The most visible part of the OfS are the 15 members who make up its board, led by chief executive Nicola Dandridge and chair Sir Michael Barber. The board members come from a range of backgrounds, including businesses and other HE bodies.

Six of the new appointees are being carried over from HEFCE, all of whom joined the funding body less than a year ago – usually from business roles. Overall, this means that the board’s experience is more grounded in business than education.

The National Union of Students’ (NUS) president, Shakira Martin, and its vice-president for higher education, former CUSU president Amatey Doku, both applied and were rejected.

Instead, the only student representative on the board is Ruth Carlson, an engineering student at the University of Surrey, whose credentials include working as a course representative and being president of her university’s women’s football club. Dandridge has previously said that she wants to set up a ten-person board of students, chaired by Carlson, to inform how the OfS is set up.

Who’s who in the Office for Students?

Nicola Dandridge CEO

Dandridge will head up the OfS, having previously served for eight years as CEO of Universities UK, an organisation which represents the UK’s universities. Because of this, she has been labelled by some as a “poacher turned gamekeeper”, but she has insisted she will put student interests first. Concerns have also been raised about her commitment to transparency, after the Daily Mail accused her of trying to have universities granted exemption from the Freedom of Information (FOI) act, something she has denied.

Sir Michael Barber Chair

Barber has worked in a variety of roles across government and business, including heading up former prime minister Tony Blair’s delivery unit, serving as chief education adviser at the publishing and assessment service Pearson, and having roles at consulting firms McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group. In recent comments, Barber has said the OfS will tackle excessive vice-chancellor pay, and that the OfS will adopt “the widest possible definition of freedom of speech: namely anything within the law”.

Martin Coleman Deputy Chair

Coleman is being carried over from the soon-to-be-defunct HEFCE. His previous roles including working as a partner as legal services group Norton Rose Fulbright, and lecturing at Brunel University. He is a member of the university council at Kent. The OfS has welcomed Coleman’s specialism in competition policy, which Barber has said will benefit the “competitive market” of HE.

Chris Millward Access guru

Millward will be the OfS’s director for fair access and participation, leaving his role as a director at HEFCE, where he was head of policy for 10 years. He has previously been involved with the implementation of TEF, and aiming to improve access for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Katherine Lander

Lander is another former HEFCE board member. She is a chartered account and financial economist. Currently, she is director of strategy and operations at Eukleia & LEO, which provides training to a number of sector including HE. She was previously at Fitch Learning, a group which provides corporate training, and worked at a wealth and asset management firm.

Prof. Carl Lygo

Lygo, also formerly HEFCE, was the founding vice-chancellor of BPP University, a private university which is owned the US-based Apollo Group of private universities. He is a qualified barrister, as was formerly part of the General Chiropractic Council.

Prof. David Palfreyman

Palfreyman is director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS), a role he has held since 2001. He holds roles on several other boards connected to HE, and has been on HEFCE’s board since March. He has called for an end to the vice-chancellor pay ‘gravy train’ in his role as bursar of New College, Oxford.

Gurpreet Dehal

Most of Dehal’s career has been spent in investment banking, primarily as a risk manager and COO. He has also held roles at Credit Suisse and Merrill Lynch He has been involved in HE since joining the university council at Royal Holloway. He is a trustee of a multi-school academy trust, and has been part of HEFCE’s board since March last year.

Prof. Steven West

West has been vice-chancellor, CEO and president or the University of the West of England (UWE) since 2008. He was an academic at several universities before he joined UWE in 1995, where he has held executive roles for over a decade. From 2012–2016, he was chair of University Alliance, a body which represents 20 universities focused on technology and professional education.

Simon Levine

Levine is managing partner and co-global CEO of DLA piper, a law firm. A graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he specialises in intellectual property, media and sports law, and is a visiting professor and lecturer at Imperial College Business School, in London.

Toby Young (Resigned Jan 9th)

Young is best known as associate editor of The Spectator, but is also director of the New Schools Network, a group of free schools. He has previously taught at Harvard and Cambridge, and is a Fulbright Commissioner. Young resigned from the OfS on 9th January, following substantial backlash over his qualifications, and comments he has made about women.

Elizabeth Fagan

Fagan is managing director of Boots, the pharmacy, where she was the first woman to hold that role. Her career has taken her through a variety of commercial roles, but she has no apparent experience in higher education. She was previously president of a industry networking organisation for senior female leaders in marketing and communications.

Katja Hall

Hall is a partner at Chairman Mentors International, which trains CEOs and board-level executives. She was previously head of external affairs and sustainability at HSBC, and was deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a major British business organisation.

Monisha Shah

Shah is chair of Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, in London. She is also a trustee of ArtFund, an independent fundraising charity for art. She was previously director of sales for emerging markets at BBC Worldwide. She is a member of the government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life, which works on ethical standards in public life in England.

Ruth Carlson

Carlson is the lone student representative on the OfS board. She is a student at Surrey University, where she studies engineering. She is a student ambassador for civil engineering, a role which included giving campus tours and presentations, and was formerly president of the university’s women’s football team.

Sources: DfE, HEFCE, social media, company profiles, local reporting.

What’s the controversy?

Most of the furore is surrounding Young – particularly with regards to comments he has made on Twitter in the past about women. Young has claimed that criticisms of him arise primarily because he is a Conservative, but he is mainly being castigated based around comments he has made on social media, and the DfE’s initially misreporting of his qualifications – incorrectly claiming he had held a post at Cambridge. Young’s defenders have said that his position as an HE outsider puts him in a better place to advise, stressing the value of outside opinions – though by this measurement several most of the board’s members offer a similar viewpoint. On 9th January, Young resigned from the OfS, following substantial pressure and criticism.

NUS representatives have also complained about the OfS’s lack of student members, saying that the union – which claims to represent all of Britain’s more than two million HE students – should have been given a role on the board.

In addition, the board does not have a representative from the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), which represents staff, or anyone currently working in further education. Labour’s shadow higher education minister, Gordon Marsden, called the new appointments a “huge failed opportunity”.

Update: This article was updated on 4th January to correct the photograph and biography of Simon Levine. Levine specialises in intellectual property, media and sports law, not VAT law. A incorrect headshot had also been used.

Update: This article was updated on 9th January following the resignation of Toby Young.