Minister supports FE representation at Office for Students

The universities minister has backed FE representation on the board of the new regulatory body for higher education.

Sam Gyimah’s remarks to the Commons education select committee this morning followed a heated debate in parliament last night, in which senior MPs from both sides of the political divide made renewed demands for the sector to be represented on the Office for Students.

“It’s an idea that I’m supportive of, yes,” Mr Gyimah (pictured above) said in response to committee chair Robert Halfon.

Mr Gyimah said the government “had the message loud and clear”, and that OfS chair Michael Barber was “supportive” too.

Sam Gyimah and Philippa Lloyd

And Philippa Lloyd, the director general for HE and FE at the Department for Education, answered Mr Halfon’s question with a resounding “yes, yes”.

The OfS was launched on April 1 as the new regulator for HE providers, but complaints have been mounting throughout 2018 about the lack of FE representation on its board – despite the large number of people studying HE at FE institutions.

During last night’s debate on the OfS, which was called by the Labour party, Mr Halfon said he was “concerned” about this omission.

“Further education and apprenticeships play a vital role in access to HE for the most disadvantaged and are crucial to building the skills base and productivity of our country, but they are so often excluded from bodies of this kind,” he said.

He urged the government to “make it a priority to recruit a serious representative” from the FE sector.

Tottenham MP David Lammy, who backed FE Week’s #SaveOurAdultEducation campaign last year, said it would be a “mistake” for FE not to be represented in “such an important body, which is regulator, funder and has important levers in relation to the provider”.

“I do hope that the minister will look again at the important role of FE,” he said.

David Lammy

Speaking on behalf of the government, Mr Gyimah noted the “points that have been made about the composition of the board” – but made no commitments.

“The secretary of state’s first set of strategic guidance to the OfS set a very clear expectation that apprenticeships must be taken into account whenever the OfS exercises its functions, and that apprentices must be represented within its widening access and participation activity,” he added. 

During an earlier education committee hearing on March 27, Mr Barber said he would “welcome good applications from the FE sector” to replace Toby Young, who resigned in disgrace from the board in January.

In a follow-up letter to Mr Halfon, dated April 5, Mr Barber wrote that the OfS would “welcome high-quality applications from candidates from the further education sector during all recruitment exercises to the board”.

The first of these is set for this month when the DfE “launches a new campaign for the student experience board member this month”.

However, recruitment has yet to begin, and will be launched in due course, the DfE admitted today.

Mr Barber also said he had appointed “another member of the student panel with experience of both further education and apprenticeships”.

That person would sit on the panel alongside NUS president Shakira Martin who “plays an important role as a graduate of, and advocate for, the FE sector”.

“We expect to be held to account by all of our student panel members and value the full range of their experiences and expertise,” Mr Barber wrote.

Emily Chapman, NUS vice president for FE, said the union had “been saying for a long time that the government must show its understanding of the central role colleges play”, and Mr Gyimah’s comments showed “the government is beginning to recognise students like the ones studying for a HE course in an FE environment.”