Jo Johnson. Photo: Channel 4
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Why giving a job to Toby Young shows Jo Johnson's university regulator is doomed from the start

The Office For Students might not succeed in doing anything other than getting good headlines for Jo Johnson.

Unhappy new year: academics in England have been given an unlovely present from Johnson, the higher education minister, in the shape of the final six members of the new Office for Students, including the polemicist, director of the New Schools Network and founder of the West London Free School, Toby Young.

The appointment is riling academics because Young has next-to-no experience in higher education and no experience in academic research at all. Adding to the problem for some is Young’s long and established record of inflammatory articles about student diversity. His appointment is being welcomed by some on the right because of his record in the secondary education sector and his vocal participation in the “defence” of free speech, which is supposedly under threat from a new generation of increasingly illiberal students.

I’ve written on why the “war on free speech” is overwritten before and I don’t want to go over old ground: the bigger problems with the OfS are, as Nick Hillman tells the Guardian, that its remit is simply too large for it to function effectively. The biggest loser in that is likely to be research, which is poorly represented across the 15-member-board. Young is the highest profile and most visibly unequipped in this area but in general the experience of academic research in the new body is some way short of what one would wish.

The cause of that problem is twofold. The first is simply that the body is tasked with doing two important roles: the first is the management of funding and the second is the broader governance of universities, with particular reference to the student experience.  That reflects on the fact that British universities do three things: the first is of course to educate domestic students, the second is research, the third is effectively to run the United Kingdom’s neglected and unappreciated export industry: that is, the provision of higher education to the global rich. (That latter role is not just confined to the very top universities: the University of Sunderland is a particularly successful institution as far as attracting overseas students goes.)

So it does make sense to have a body that does for students what Ofcom and Ofgem do for users of communications and energy markets respectively, but by bundling that in with the responsibilities of Hefce, which handles funding, the government is likely to end up with a body which does all of these things badly. (Although research itself will be handed to a separate body, funding decisions will be made by the OfS, which means that it will have research implications.) 

Added to that you have the second problem, which is that the Office for Students is being used effectively to boost Jo Johnson’s political profile by nodding at whatever idea is currently fashionable on the British right. A combination of social media – now every student excess is posted online, which exaggerates botht the scale of the problem and its novelty – and the Conservatives’ poor election result means that the in doctrine is that there is a problem on university campuses. So in comes a bunch of powers for the OfS that wouldn’t tackle the problem even if there is one but do make good headlines in the right-wing press for Johnson. There is very little in Young’s CV to recommend him to the board, but he is popular and influential on the right, so there goes a board position for him too.

And that’s one reason why the OfS is likely to go down in history as a failure.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Like many others, Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was left in charge of a failing aircraft

Ony when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility properly resource the NHS. 

The day Leicester trainee paediatrician Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was struck off by the High Court for her involvement in the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt posted a tweet expressing his deep concern about possible unintended consequences of the ruling. He was referring specifically to the impact on patient safety.

At a stroke, efforts to build a culture of open learning – a cause Hunt champions – had been set back decades. You don’t get people to talk honestly about critical mistakes by threatening them with prison and professional ruin.

There may be other consequences that Hunt didn’t anticipate. Comparisons with another safety-critical industry – aviation – are instructive. On the day Jack died, from undiagnosed sepsis, Bawa-Garba was functioning as would a first officer on an aircraft. The plane’s captain was elsewhere, training other pilots on a simulator in a different city. The chief steward had failed to report for duty, so Bawa-Garba was expected to oversee cabin service as well as fly the plane single-handed.

The aircraft’s IT systems had gone down, meaning one of the stewardesses was permanently occupied looking out of the window to ensure they didn’t collide with anything. Another stewardess was off sick, and her replacement was unfamiliar with the type of plane and its safety systems. And Bawa-Garba herself had just returned from a year’s maternity leave. She’d done quite a lot of flying in the past, though, and the airline clearly believed she could slot straight back into action – they arranged no return-to-work programme, dropping her in at the deep end.

Not one of us would agree to be a passenger on that flight, yet that kind of scenario is commonplace in hospitals throughout the country. Critically ill patients have no awareness of how precarious their care is, and would have no choice about it if they knew. Since the Bawa-Garba ruling, doctors have been bombarding the General Medical Council (GMC) for advice as to what they should do when confronted with similarly parlous working conditions.

The GMC’s response has been to issue a flowchart detailing whom medics should tell about concerns. But it has failed to confirm that doing so would protect doctors should a disaster occur. Nor does it support worried doctors simply refusing to work under unsafe conditions. This is akin to telling the first officer they must inform the airline that things are bad, very bad, but that they still have to fly the plane regardless.

Jeremy Hunt has responded to the crisis by announcing an urgent review into gross negligence manslaughter, the offence of which Bawa-Garba was convicted. This is welcome, and long overdue, but it still serves to retain the focus on individuals and their performance, and keeps attention away from the failing systems that let down doctors and patients daily.

An action by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin is, arguably, more important than Hunt’s review. The organisation has written to Leicestershire police requesting that they investigate Bawa-Garba’s hospital trust for alleged corporate manslaughter. I sincerely hope a prosecution follows. I’m no fan of litigation, but change is only going to come when those who manage the NHS know that they are going to carry the can when things go wrong.

We need clear statements of what constitute minimum acceptable staffing levels, both in terms of numbers, and training and experience. When departments, or even whole hospitals, fall below these – or when unexpected problems such as IT failures occur – managers, faced with the real prospect of corporate lawsuits, will close the unit, rather than keep operating in unsafe conditions, as routinely occurs.

Only when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility – Jeremy Hunt and the rest of the Conservative government – finally act to resource the health service properly. 

This would be an unintended consequence from the Dr Bawa-Garba case that would be welcome indeed. 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist