Profile – Nicola Dandridge

A year after the establishment of the Office for Students, chief executive Nicola Dandridge talks to Paddy Smith about heading up the first higher education watchdog of its type


Profile:

Name: Nicola Dandridge CBE

Company: Office for Students

Job title: Chief executive

Born: Littlehampton

Education: Two years qualifying as a lawyer at the University of Glasgow

Career highlight: The OfS becoming fully operational in April 2018. “I’d already been in post for around six months by then, so it was a lovely moment to feel we were ready to get on with our work.”

Best leadership advice: “The one I use most often is ‘form follows function’ – always a really important principle (originally this was an architectural principle but it applies much more broadly).”    


Nicola Dandridge rarely hesitates. When she does, the silence is brief and followed by explanations of rare clarity, unpunctuated by the um-and-ah clutter of ordinary speech. Perhaps her delivery is informed by her “quite useful” early professional life as a City lawyer. Or was it her stint dealing with asbestos compensation claims in the shipyards of the Clyde?

The latter Dandridge describes as “a wonderful time”, referring to the period when she first got really involved in equality and diversity – the watchwords of her current assignment heading up the Office for Students (OfS).

Established in April 2018, the OfS rose from the ashes of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFA). While staff transferred from both organisations into the new body, the OfS is more reinvention than merger, with a hard-nosed regulatory mandate replacing the altogether cosier relationships universities had become used to with HEFCE. 

But it’s not Dandridge’s first brush with higher education by any stretch. That started when she joined the Equality Challenge Unit. “I was starting to get slightly frustrated by the constraints of being a lawyer – of trying to get at issues of equality and diversity through the lens of being a lawyer – and the opportunity arose to be chief executive of what was then the Equality Challenge Unit, which was a sector agency set up to promote equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education. So that’s when I made the jump into higher education.”

If it was a departure from her legal vocation, it was welcome. “I loved it. Funnily enough, I remember very clearly when I was thinking about giving up being a lawyer – it’s absurd with hindsight – I was thinking ‘I’m going to get deskilled’ and actually running that organisation was extraordinarily challenging. How do you make an impact on issues as complex and entrenched as disadvantage and social mobility? 

“Women in science, black and minority ethnic students not doing as well, lack of women in senior positions, status and experience of disabled students… all these things were very much in the mix. And it was extraordinarily difficult and completely fascinating, and it matters.”

Three years on, a job came up that would cement her relationship with higher education, and Dandridge stepped into the chief executive role at Universities UK (UUK), the membership organisation for “the more established” universities and colleges in the sector. She would stay in the role for seven years.

My relationship with universities has changed significantly, but that is absolutely how it has to be

With a decade of higher education expertise under her belt, Dandridge threw her hat in the ring to run the as-yet unfounded OfS.

“I wasn’t initially thinking I wanted to run the Office for Students but the more I thought about the role and its challenges and its importance, the more I thought it was a really important and interesting job that needed to be done and I thought I had a lot to bring to it because I understood the sector very well and I was – and am – absolutely committed to the objectives it’s trying to achieve.

“The fact that it’s very much focused on ensuring the success of higher education for students – that student perspective – I found that both extremely attractive as a role, but also incredibly important. The more I thought about the development of the OfS from the perspective of my role at UUK, the more I was thinking this is a job that needs to be done and I think I can do it. So it felt rather a natural transition.”

Dandridge applied for the role and, after a “competitive” process, was appointed. 

How did she feel? “Completely delighted, and somewhat aware that it was not a straightforward job. This is setting up a regulator in a sector that has not had a regulator of this sort before. It was bringing together the work of OFA which was incredibly important in dealing with issues of social mobility and equality and diversity with the new regulatory responsibilities together with some inherited responsibilities from HEFCE. So you bring all that together in quite a lively external environment and that’s quite a challenge.

“The other thing I was very conscious of was the speed at which we had to set the Office for Students up. We had to bring two organisations together to create something new, bring the workforce together, set up a credible and robust regulator and then start making regulatory decisions all in very quick order. So it’s quite challenging – I didn’t have any illusions about that, but I knew it was going to be very interesting and it absolutely has been. It’s been completely fascinating. But what really matters in all of this is that this is important. It really does matter. It matters that we get this right.

“It matters from the perspective of current and future students, importantly, but it also matters from the perspective of universities and higher education providers. And it matters for the country. Higher education has a pivotal role in our economy and in our society, given everything else that’s going on. So it’s the sort of job where you think it’s really worth devoting yourself to it. My children have now left home so I’ve got the time to absolutely throw myself into this and get it right.”

While recognising all her jobs have been “quite tricky”, Dandridge admits her role at OfS is “a bigger challenge”. Yet her determination seems to feed on complexity. There is a glint in her eye when she describes the seeming insurmountability of the task at hand. She smiles in contemplation of the OfS’s remit: 

“It’s not the sort of job you get bored in, that’s for sure.”


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And what drove the foundation of this new organisation? Is it the recognition that universities who once prioritised research over their student body have capitulated to a new order where students – and their increased financial worth to institutions – have risen to top ranking?

“There’s an element of truth in that,” Dandridge concedes tentatively, “but inevitably it’s a bit simplistic because there’s a huge diversity of provision out there and different universities and higher education providers have different priorities. You get some who are primarily research institutes and some who are primarily teaching institutions. I think it’s fair to say that one of the reasons the Office for Students was set up was because of a perception that for some universities research was prioritised over teaching. But it’s simplistic to say that was the case across the board and of course within any organisation there are completely outstanding examples of teaching, pastoral care and support for students. Many, actually.”

And is that driven by fees?

“I think there was a bit of a step change when they were increased to £9,000 initially,” she begins, before stopping to qualify her comments. “You need to put this in context. We do have an extraordinarily strong higher education system in this country. The quality of provision for students is very high, so we’re starting from a high point. This is not a dysfunctional higher education system. We’re highly regarded globally for a good reason. Generally, the teaching students get in the UK is very, very good.”

Having prefaced, she returns to the question. 

“I think that the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 did shift the dynamic, it did put more focus on what students were experiencing, it rightly raised their expectations, they absolutely rightly now expect more, as they should, and I think what we are seeing is that they are getting more, and there is an increasing focus. That’s a dynamic that at the Office for Students we think is utterly desirable and it’s what we are set up to encourage, incentivise and regulate. So, there’s a continuum here, but it’s from a high base.”

Has that made higher education more corporate in its outlook? “I think it is fair to say that it has become more competitive and that has brought with it an increased focus on running universities as businesses and running them professionally. And also there’s less money around now. It’s a tough environment for universities to be operating in and I think that brings with it a requirement to professionalise services that possibly was less the case before. You can see that in the profiles of recruitment into university senior teams – there are far more professionals brought in from other sectors to support the effective functioning of the university.”

One interesting element of Dandridge’s move from Universities UK to OfS is the change in relationship. The former is a membership – and member-led – organisation, the latter an altogether toothier regulatory body. OfS does not shy away from being labelled an industry ‘watchdog’. It’s a drastic change.

“As a regulator, you have to have a certain distance from those you are regulating. Whereas previously, by definition, I ran a membership organisation and I was very close to [universities], so it’s changed quite significantly. And that’s absolutely how it has to be. Having said that, I am very clear that although we are a regulator and we have to be independent-minded – we have to have the capacity and confidence to take some quite tough regulatory decisions – we need and want to be respected by the sector and maintain good relations. It’s a different relationship, inevitably, and I don’t think you could do this job well unless you had a certain distance from those you’re regulating, but that doesn’t mean you don’t respect them and want them to respect you and want to work constructively with them.

“It’s an interesting role, the Office for Students, because we’ve responsibilities not just to regulate the individual university or higher education provider, but we also have responsibilities to work collaboratively when appropriate, for example in relation to social mobility, where we’ve got a specific duty to work collaboratively across the sector. We’re doing a lot of work on mental health, which is a real issue for students and for us, and it’s a priority in the country generally but particularly in the higher education sector. So there we are funding collaborative projects and wanting to draw on the experience of universities to support what is effectively a common endeavour. We’re trying to balance quite a complicated relationship with the sector.

“When I think back to what I was doing at UUK, there it was all about collaboration and that’s a familiar approach. It’s a very collaborative sector as a rule.

“There’s a real commitment to working with others to protect and promote the interests of students. That plays out in the way we regulate, so I think we have to do both things.”

We are trying to balance quite a complicated relationship with the sector

Is there a consensus on where the duty of care lies with, say, mental health? How much responsibility are universities supposed to have for students? Is the onus on students to seek advice and support, or should HEIs monitor and identify where there might be problems?

That complexity-fed glint appears in Dandridge’s eye again. “It’s a good question, and it’s both. 

These are not children, these are adults. There’s a tiny minority that goes to university below the age of 18 but overwhelmingly we’re talking about young adults, and also mature students – increasingly, large numbers of older people go to university – and that is fundamental. This is not the relationship of a school to a pupil. Having said that, universities know very well that they’ve got responsibilities in relation to pastoral care and pastoral support but it doesn’t play out as it would with school pupils and schools. It has to respect their autonomy and their independence, and that’s a debate that’s very live at the moment – exactly what those responsibilities are.

“Interestingly in the context of mental health, for example, there is a clear appetite for more support services and counselling to students, but at the same time I think there’s an acknowledgement that there needs to be greater focus on prevention, and enabling and empowering students to develop their own sense of responsibility for their mental health and wellbeing. You see all these debates being played out in that context quite clearly.

“On the one hand, there has got to be that sort of support, particularly in the transition from school to university which can be a really challenging time for young people. At that end it’s much closer to support and counselling and all the rest of it. And then increasingly we are seeing universities being much more proactive in encouraging students to take responsibility for their own mental health and wellbeing and I think that’s a very positive thing. So I can’t answer your question in a straightforward way because it’s quite a complex relationship, and I think from parents’ perspective (and they are an important stakeholder in all of this) they have expectations that the university will provide pastoral care, pastoral support. They’re part of the equation too, and that needs to be factored in. This is not easy for universities. Striking the right balance is tricky.”

And after graduating?

“One of the things we’re looking at in terms of the work we’re doing in mental health and wellbeing is the transition points. I mentioned the transition from school to university but there’s another transition which is out of university into the workplace and we know that can be very difficult. This is tough: the job market is deeply competitive, you’re on your own, the social life goes, the support structure goes.

“From a university perspective, there’s a really interesting question about how far their support should extend. I think what we’re observing – increasingly – is that universities want to maintain that relationship. That’s partly because they feel an obligation to do that. They’re not just going to wash their hands of students that they’ve supported for however many years, but also it’s an acknowledgement that increasingly the reskilling and upskilling agenda is important.

“You don’t leave university and have qualifications for life anymore. There’s much more of an acknowledgement that there may need to be an ongoing relationship. 

The dynamic is changing, and we’re seeing alumni relations playing a much more important role – it’s not just about fundraising; it’s about maintaining a relationship. Part of that is a desire to see the relationship continuing. That changes: it’s different for every university, but it’s certainly a trend and I would think quite a welcome trend. From our regulatory point of view, our responsibilities stop at the point of exit. That said, we are very interested in exit. The data that underpins quite a few of our regulations relates to post-graduation, in other words what happens to your students. We look quite closely at whether students get jobs and what jobs.”

The Office for Students (OfS) was established in April 2018

To prevent students leaving with unrealistic expectations?

“I wouldn’t put it like that. It’s acknowledging that for all students, to a greater or lesser extent, getting a job and getting a career and meeting their aspirations is an important part of why they go to university. If a university was providing a course for however many years and then the student is left without the skills and ability and experience to get a job, then we will be asking questions about the relevance and appropriateness of that.

“We see graduate outcomes as a really important part of the university’s role. This is not new, by the way. Most universities take employability very seriously, increasingly it’s being embedded in the curriculum and there’s a huge amount of support provided and information, advice and guidance and career services. This is very much part of the university experience. That assumes that most students are young. What we’re seeing is an increasing number of mature students who are coming in with very much a vocational focus on why they want to get this particular qualification.”

All this talk of education for the purpose of getting a job indicates that we are straying from the loftier ideal of non-vocational training for the simple purpose of enriching thought in a manner that is less tangible and harder to measure. If there is a spectrum that has broadening of the mind at one end and broadening of the payslip at the other, where are we now?

“I think that’s a good way of putting it. The pendulum has shifted towards getting a career and getting a job that you find satisfactory and meets your aspirations. Clearly many people go to university because they love their subject and they want to study it and we mustn’t lose that. But I think we also have to acknowledge that many students go to university to get a job. Probably, for the huge majority, they do both.”

Indeed, one of the OfS’s first projects was a consultation with student unions to establish just what students thought represented value for money. 

“The first thing it illustrated is that every student is going to have a different view on this, and that reflects the fact that they all have different views on why they’ve gone to university. Within that what they really cared about – to give a crude summary of a huge report – is the quality of teaching and also, sitting under that, is ‘I want to get a good job’. In a very competitive job environment, that’s hardly surprising.”

But that hasn’t been the biggest shift in higher education during Dandridge’s decade-long career, nor does she believe that accolade belongs to the 2010 Browne Review, which led to fees being raised to £9,000 per year. Instead, she thinks, the most significant event was the cap on student numbers being lifted.

“That had a real impact because it introduced a degree of competition for students into the sector that always was there, but not to the same extent, at least at the undergraduate level. That’s the dynamic which has led to a much more competitive environment where some universities have expanded their student number intake and some have contracted. That has shifted things quite significantly.”

In a good way? “Yes. I think it’s a good thing, but it needs regulation because the danger otherwise is that it unleashes undesirable behaviours, inevitably. If you’re going to deregulate student numbers and introduce that element of market competition then you’ve got to have an effective regulator. We were created to encourage a focus on students, but also because we do now have a much more vibrant and dynamic effective market in higher education.”

And what could have been done differently in the past decade? “I think many of us feel frustrated at the difficulties in really addressing issues of social mobility and disadvantage. There has been progress, significant progress actually in terms of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going into university and we’ve seen the number go up but it’s a really entrenched and difficult problem and what we observe is that increasingly it’s not just a question of who goes into university, it’s what happens to them when they get there and then what happens to them when they leave.

“We’re seeing these really entrenched disadvantages in terms of the experiences of students from disadvantaged backgrounds – part of that is socio-economic, part of it is regional, it’s to do with aspiration, it’s to do with gender and race and disability and issues that are inherited from schools and also then play out in the workplace as well. And if you put all that together and you look at the progress we’ve made over the past 10 years, it feels slow.

“I think the Office for Students has been set up in a way that really should be able to address some of these issues. We’ve got the powers, we’ve got the focus, we’ve got the statutory obligation and the commitment. So we are in a really good position to change things but if I look back over the past 10 years – for such an outstanding sector – how is it that we’ve made such slow progress on these things? It is progress, but it’s slow, and I feel frustrated about that.”

We’ve got the powers, we’ve got the focus and we’ve got the statutory obligation

If that is Dandridge’s main beef, it stands to reason that she expects it to change faster in the next 10 years. “Absolutely. We are really committed to this. It’s our first strategic priority and we’ve set ourselves some pretty demanding targets that are going to be matched by pretty demanding key performance measures. We’ve got to just raise our game and be more ambitious and believe that we can do it.

“There’s a slight sense that you come up against which is ‘this is all too difficult’, not least because it cuts across so many different issues: school education and economic disadvantage and aspirations that are entrenched from generation to generation. This is not straightforward and I think sometimes that can lead to a sense of cynicism and scepticism that anything can be done. We have to make sure we don’t go down that route and we have to be ambitious. And anyway, that’s what we’ve been set up to do, so apart from the fact we’re committed to it, we have to do it. And we will.

“We’ve got more powers than any of our predecessor organisations had, but it’s not just about powers, it’s about commitment. One of the things we’re very keen to do is focus on outcomes. This is not just a question of setting in place processes within the sector. We’re really keen to see demonstrable outcomes and that’s very much what we’re doing.”

As the OfS continues to go through registrations from HE providers, a picture must be building of quite how much work there is to do. But is it better or worse than expected?

“This has never been done before. There’s never been this deep dive into what is going on within individual providers and looking at the quality of provision and their financial sustainability. So we just didn’t know – no one knew. I didn’t have any clear expectations, I don’t think. But it’s a fascinating and important exercise.”

But it’s what will be done with these data that matters so much. As a sector, it can be hard to gauge whether there are enough data, or too much. Are high-quality data being used effectively?

“I think we’re not bad at it. We’re quite a data-rich sector and compared to other sectors there’s a real need to be evidence-based in our policy developments, so I think we do quite well. We could always do better, of course, and there is appetite to get more lifetime data. Certainly when I go to other countries and talk about their higher education system and ours, they’re very envious of what we have.

“I certainly think we have enough for us, as the regulator, to reach informed and evidence-based decisions so we can be quite confident in reaching conclusions whereas I think in other countries where they have less data underpinning it they’d have much more difficulty. It’s an area where we should be proud but it doesn’t mean it can’t get better.”


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And what happens if data are misused? If your organisation is measuring success in part by grade attainment and that leads to grade inflation, are you not part of the problem?

“I can’t see any circumstances when it’s not useful to publish data, as long as it’s reliable. But I think how it’s interpreted is really important and I think we need to be very mindful of that. In a system as complicated and trying to achieve so many different things as our sector does, then it’s inevitable you’ve got these paradoxes. I think in a way that those tensions are an inevitable consequence of a sector that is achieving a huge amount.

“Say you’ve got social mobility, you’ve got research, you’ve got employer engagement, you’ve got supporting current and future skills, you’ve got education and learning, community engagement, international collaborations. There’s such a broad range. This is a huge and important sector. Of course there are going to be tensions within that, but I don’t think that’s a problem; it’s an inevitable reflection of its complexity. We’ve just got to live with it and make it work. 

You can be too simplistic about how you interpret data. It really does need to be understood. But that’s not a reason not to get the data out there. I’m a tremendous believer in transparency. It’s something we’re trying to embody at the Office for Students. We’re being as open as we can as the regulator about data and information about what we’re doing. Even if it makes us uncomfortable, I think it’s still important to be transparent so we’re trying to make sure that’s lived.” 

Nicola Dandridge is chief executive of the Office for Students