The OfS board has no FE representation – as the DfE recently admitted to MPs. Emily Chapman wants this remedied (and at the IfA) right now.

Further education is a central component of the higher education sector in this country, but it seems this government is hell-bent on ignoring this truth at every turn.

With 218 colleges providing undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the UK, the vast majority teaching foundation degrees, and one in 10 people studying HE in an FE environment, it is astounding that the government’s controversial new university regulator, the Office for Students, has no dedicated FE representation on its board.

This adds insult to injury next to the chaotic and inappropriate appointment of Toby Young

Students experience post-16 education in very different ways, and part of the OfS’ remit is to analyse this experience at a national level. With so many students studying HE in a college, the body has a clear knowledge gap: no-one can speak on their behalf on the current board. We already struggle to measure how these particular students experience their education, and without FE representation on the board we risk exacerbating these existing problems.

Since the OfS’ inception, the NUS has argued that the one seat on the board reserved for the “student experience” was not good enough. Our president, Shakira Martin, is a welcome member of the student panel appointed to advise the OfS. However she is the only one who appears to be a former FE college learner. This is simply not good enough.

Not only this, the board proper has failed to appoint any of the applicants interviewed for the student representative position, and have instead made do with a one-year appointment from the student panel. This adds insult to injury next to the frankly chaotic and inappropriate appointment of Toby Young.

If the government wants to actually progress on its commitment to widening participation and equal access to university, it must show its understanding of the central role colleges play. Underrepresented groups benefit when the role FE plays in access to HE is accurately examined.

Any further commitment the government makes to widening participation in HE must provide more financial support and policy attention to FE colleges. This is the only way to truly boost social mobility. If the OfS fails to consider the state of FE, postgraduate numbers will continue to decline, dropout rates will increase and underrepresented groups will continue to be failed by a system that promises something it is ill-equipped to deliver. 

Being denied representation at the highest level is no new thing. In 2016 something similar happened in relation to apprentices and the body that was set up to ensure the “high-quality of apprenticeships in England”: the Institute for Apprenticeships.

Shakira, who was VP for FE at the time, demanded two full seats on the board of the IfA. Instead, an apprentice panel was set up “to report directly to the board”, but no representation was appointed to the board itself. The then-minister had no satisfactory answer to this.

Toby Young

Learners and trainees have a huge role to play when it comes to understanding the quality of an apprenticeship, and arguments like “they wouldn’t have enough experience or be able to deal with governance responsibility” are frankly undermining and patronising. In fact learners have a wealth of experience and are the only ones who know what it is truly like to go through the working/learning aspect of their studies, and the application process.

In the same way that there is a diversity of experiences in HE, apprentices face a host of different challenges across the specialisms. Learners’ and apprentices’ voices go hand-in-hand, and with a new leadership team at the Department for Education we have a real opportunity to change who is listened to at the highest level. Damian Hinds and Sam Gyimah have a task on their hands, but a good place to start is finding adequate representation for FE students at both the Institute for Apprentices and the Office for Students.

Emily Chapman is VP of further education at the National Union of Students