Skip to main content

Office for Students

Volume 615: debated on Monday 10 October 2016

I welcome the shadow Ministers to their roles and also, more importantly, welcome my new ministerial colleagues to theirs for our first oral questions session.

We have made it clear that the Office for Students must have student representation, and we will take every opportunity to embed student engagement in the culture and structure of the new organisation.

I thank the Secretary of State for confirming that. During the summer, I met students from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, who are very concerned about rising tuition fees, the scrapping of maintenance grants and, above all, the quality of teaching. Can she assure them that they will be listened to when they express concerns about those issues in connection with the Higher Education and Research Bill?

In part, the Bill reflects our wish to secure value for money for students, which we are building into law for the first time. Our updating of the higher education regulatory framework is long overdue, and I am delighted that we are taking the opportunity to put the interests of students at the heart of it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should beware the law of unintended consequences? Adding students to the board of the Office for Students would put at risk representation and engagement with students throughout the higher education system. Will she assure me, and the student community, that the OFS will put students at the heart of the system?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that he has played an important role on the Public Bill Committee and presented his own proposals. As we have made clear, we do not want to be over-prescriptive. We want to set up the Office for Students and allow it to ensure that students have a voice not just through representation, but through the way in which the office itself works.

The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016, which the Scottish Government introduced in March, has given students a much stronger voice and increased their involvement in key decision making in Scotland’s universities. Does the Secretary of State agree that students deserve to participate more in the higher education sector, and will she look to the example set by Scotland to ensure that they can do so?

I have no doubt that Scottish colleagues will wish to share the hon. Lady’s experience. As I have said, it is important to ensure that the voices of students are heard ever more clearly, and that is precisely what the Bill is intended to achieve—among other things, including improving choice for students. As was pointed out earlier, we now have a funding system that requires students to pay tuition fees, and it is vital that they obtain value for money.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post and congratulate her on becoming Secretary of State for one of the most interesting Departments.

I welcome student representation, but may I warn my right hon. Friend that there is a danger relating to who she decides should be representatives? The National Union of Students is no longer the undivisive organisation that it was once, and a number of universities have already decided that they want nothing to do with it. How will the Secretary of State choose the students who are to be represented on the new body?

My hon. Friend sets out his concerns eloquently. During the Bill’s passage, we have made it clear that we want people on the OFS who have experience of representing, or indeed promoting, the interests of students. As I have said, the key requirement is for us not to be prescriptive, but to allow the new body to become established and then find sensible ways of ensuring—not just through the board itself, but, more importantly, through the way in which it operates—it provides a strong voice for students and represents their interests.