What If…? The proposed ‘Office for Students’ was treated like a start-up* from day one


Last week the ‘Higher Education Green Paper’ was released for consultation. You can read a useful summary over on Times Higher and a whole bunch of useful analysis at WonkHE (with my former colleague David Kernohan contributing some great stuff.)

Now I don’t really have anything to say about the paper itself (other than the lack of comment about online or part-time studying seemed out of step with the way the world is going) but I’ve been intrigued and just a little inspired thinking about what the creation of a new body — i.e. the Office for Students — with a new set of services, users and powers would mean.

When Tom wrote about the work of the UC Digital team he said;

They’re not building a website; they’re creating a new service to deliver new policy. That requires a new organisation, with new ways of working and a new culture, as much as it requires great user journeys or quality code.

This seems like it could be one of those opportunities.

Especially if it was exempt from GOV.UK (which I guess would be up for debate as the ‘Haldane principle’ was the primary reason for the exemption of Hefce I think and OfS sounds like it wouldn’t have research funding responsibility.)

In theory it could be a ‘start-up’ organisation that should consider service design at the very earliest stage — even pre-launch — and genuinely start with digital first thinking rather than bolt it on to decades worth of legacy culture (and technology). Being able to genuinely understand the users before a line of code or copy had been written would itself be a godsend.

Things like the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’ will need to be supported by online services and I’m assuming (but you know what they say about that) that will need to be both an institutional focused service to collate and aggregate data and some kind of evolution of Unistats to present the data back to the ‘customers’ (students). Data collection and visualisation — where have I heard that before? 😉

From a purely technical point of view think of the freedom if you could start from with open source and cloud-first services. No migration. No legacy systems to fight with. No hosting deals to renegotiate. No bloody CMS systems to try and batter in to submission. Just a green field to build with the best of breed, open technologies using commodity infrastructure.

You could almost take a ‘lean start-up’ approach. Get a small, multi-disciplinary team in place and iterate, iterate, iterate and A/B test the crap out of things and do all the user research time allows. Why not? It would all be new after all.

A few years ago the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the US had a similar opportunity and Merici has spoke a few times about how they embraced the opportunity of that blank sheet of paper (here is a great, sweary Ignite talk on the topic)

This is all just fantasy stuff of course but if this change does happen I’d love to see someone get the opportunity to really do something interesting and not just do a quick rebrand of existing services with no thought of the wider user experience.

Anyway it is fun to dream.

  • not a real start-up obviously — no founders are moving back in with mum and dad if it fails but you know what I mean..

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Published in Higher Education Revolution