The government is set to introduce its brand new Office for Students in April 2018 in an effort to improve young people’s education and increase their opportunities, but it’s already had a shaky start. This leads Alice to question whether it will actually succeed in helping young people or whether failure to meet its targets is inevitable.

The Office for Students – Doomed to Fail?

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Vickie Flores/LNP/REX (8971187y)
Toby Young, journalist arrives at BBC Broadcasting House
‘The Andrew Marr’ TV show, London, UK – 23 Jul 2017

Since the veritable disaster that was the appointment and subsequent resignation of Toby Young, the Department of Education’s new Office for Students (OfS) has faced considerable scrutiny over how well it will act on the issues that really matter to English students. While unsurprising, how legitimate are these concerns? Many stem from worries that the OfS will not address the financial hardship facing countless students, with issues ranging from the bureaucracy of the Student Loans Company being nearly impossible to navigate, to several cases of students not receiving student finance for a considerable length of time despite having already started their courses. It is not surprising that such problems with funding lead to students struggling to get by, let alone succeed in higher education.

Fortunately, chair of the OfS Sir Michael Barber seems prepared to tackle these issues, as is apparent in his piece outlining the priorities of the new body. Under the point entitled, ‘Engines of Opportunity’ Barber stresses the importance not just of getting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university, but of enabling them to ‘succeed in higher education too’. Indeed, this would indicate a genuine dedication on Barber’s part to tackling the economic struggles facing students, as these are often of a particular detriment to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Furthermore, Barber is a highly experienced educationist with considerable expertise in delivering system change and reform, which arguably makes him the ideal person to chair the OfS.

However, it is also true that he has been widely criticised for an over fixation with targets, and for failure to make well-grounded observations from statistics during his tenure as head of Tony Blair’s Prime Minister Delivery Unit. Barber was heavily involved in the formulation and implementation of New Labour’s education policy, and came under fire from critics for disregarding a substantial amount of collected data in order to confirm the ‘success’ of said policies.

While it is important to acknowledge these shortcomings, complications within Blairite education policy were by no means the sole fault of Barber, and if there were indeed failings, these were first and foremost the responsibility of Tony Blair himself. So where does this leave us on Barber, and the impact he will have as chair of the OfS? Whilst we have established that he is by no means perfect, it is also fair to say that Barber has had the opportunity to learn from mistakes made during the Blair government, and in addition has displayed a strong readiness to put the best interests of students at the heart of the OfS.

Despite Barber’s apparent commitment to the cause, some still question how serious the government really are about the new office; these doubts are chiefly due to the Toby Young debacle. Indeed, the appointment of someone so unsuitable for the role does seem a questionable move for an organisation supposedly meant to ‘champion the interests of students’. But was this blunder an honest miscalculation, or does it point to a greater problem in the running of the OfS? To answer this, we must consider the reason for Young’s appointment; although passed off by many as yet another example of ‘Tory Cronyism’, it is in fact far more likely that Toby Young simply (pardon the Love Island vernacular) ‘looked good on paper’.

On the surface, he seems a sensible enough candidate; he has some experience in the field of education, having co-founded a free school and subsequently secured a place as director of the ‘New Schools Network’. This coupled with a first in PPE from Oxford, it is understandable how Young may have seemed like a rational appointment. Of course, this was not in fact the case, with Young’s comments comparing working class students to ‘stains’ and disabled people to ‘troglodytes’ being only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of reasons why he is ill-suited for the OfS.

So what does this tell us? While the accusations of ‘Tory Cronyism’ in this case are perhaps unjustified, the appointment of Toby Young is indicative of a massive failure in due diligence – even a brief perusal of his social media, or a slightly deeper examination of his character would have immediately thrown up red flags about his suitability for the position. We thus begin to question the commitment of the government to making this new office work; they evidently didn’t take the time to sufficiently vet all their appointments to the board, which suggests a distressing lack of dedication to the very students the OfS is allegedly set up to protect.

However, ending on a more optimistic note, while the disappointing decision to appoint Young points to several issues within the OfS, the new body is by no means a lost cause. The Office for Students could still have a positive impact on the lives of English students, thanks to the appointment of Sir Michael Barber as chair, and other board members such as Ruth Carlson (civil engineering student), who have exhibited a genuine commitment to upholding the purpose of the board. Nevertheless, the true test of the OfS will come with its official launch on April 1st, after which we will soon be able to establish the extent to which it will truly ‘champion the interests of students’.

By Alice Kenny