OfS details now open for consultation

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Since the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) last April, the English sector has been waiting to hear exactly how its new regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), will work. Although the doors are open from 1 January 2018, it will not really start regulating till April.

That day of clarity has finally come, with a deluge of documents and consultations with responses due before Christmas. Speaking to Wonkhe, Nicola Dandridge, the OfS CEO-designate, said that this is a genuine consultation and not a ‘done deal’. The fledgeling OfS will be exclusively focused on responding to the consultation from January, with a view to implement transitional arrangements in April.

The documents themselves are written using declarative language – “the OfS will” – but this is caveated by an early line that suggests this language is just for clarity. In reality, every detail is theoretically up for grabs. But time will still be tight to have everything in place for when registration starts in April.

This article summarises the key things that the sector needs to know – and acts as a first course to the buffet of regulatory delights Wonkhe has in store for you over the days and weeks ahead.

Ten key headlines from the proposals

  1. OfS’ core functions will be as a ‘market regulator’ for the sector and individual institutions.
  2. It will grant university title and degree-awarding powers, even validating degrees itself where there is a ‘gap in the market’.
  3. It will also award any teaching grant funds ‘strategically, taking into account government priorities’. This totals almost £1.3bn (or just over a third of everything) allocated by HEFCE for 2017-18.
  4. OfS will be more powerful than HEFCE, with a ‘marked shift’ in approach that includes bailiff-style ‘powers of entry and search’, and the ability to revoke degree-awarding powers and university title.
  5. It is proposed that participation in TEF will become compulsory for all Approved institutions with over 500 students from August 2019.
  6. No new powers are included on senior pay. Numbers rather than names of those paid over £150,000 will be published. Value for money statements must be published, akin to local authority spending breakdowns.
  7. Registration fees will be banded by size, with larger institutions paying OfS up to £120,000 a year.
  8. On access OfS ‘will not hesitate’ to use sanctions if institutions are not making progress.
  9. Despite talk of free speech in the press, an area of more meaningful change is in regulating the accountability and value for money of students’ unions.
  10. OfS will become the regulator for all approved institutions, including about 20 institutions currently regulated by the Charities Commission.

The documents and consultations published today

There are over 544 pages across nine documents and five consultations. Here’s a handy index of all the links (including a one-click download for all of them at once). You’ll find a large multi-part consultation on the Regulatory Framework, plus smaller documents covering OfS registration fees, access to the market, and the designation of information and quality bodies.

Riskier approaches to degree-awarding powers and … risk?

The bar for entry will be lower, with higher-risk institutions separated into a ‘Basic’ category that can award their own degrees on a probationary basis, rather than demonstrate a four-year record. There are limited safeguards for students at such institutions. Lead indicators and risk ratings will not be published. The OfS will not ‘prop up’ failing providers. David Kernohan takes us through it.

New designation and registration fees

Basic providers will pay a proposed flat fee of £1,000, while providers in the ‘Approved’ and ‘Approved (fee cap)’ categories will pay a varied fee based on their size, as measured by their full-time equivalent (FTE) HE student numbers. Providers with over 10,000 students will now pay an OfS a registration fee of up to £92,000, whereas those with over 20,000 students will pay £119,700 per year. An alternative future fee model is also floated, based on the level of risk of the provider. Designated bodies will be able to charge their own fees, including for additional non-statutory services. Catherine Boyd has written more on this topic.

Grade inflation and Grade Point Average (GPA)

TEF will be compulsory for all institutions on the Approved Register with over 500 students from August 2019. The HEFCE and QAA approaches to quality will be abandoned, with no annual review or reporting (APR). Instead, the sector will define standards beyond the threshold, potentially including degree classifications and GPA. The OfS will challenge providers whose TEF grade-inflation metric data is of concern. Catherine Boyd looks at what has been suggested.

Alternative providers, ‘the market’ and ‘The OfS University’?

As outlined in the 2017 Act, OfS will be the validator of last resort. There’s more detail now about what this will actually look like, including the relationship OfS would have with students on programmes it accredits. A research report into the current system of validation makes recommendations on transparency and structures, to help matchmake between providers, and provide arbitration in the case of acrimony. Ant Bagshaw has more.

Free speech and regulating … students’ unions?

Despite press coverage on free speech, there appears to be little new. Instead, the consultation focuses on the accountability, transparency and value for money of students’ unions, via their host institution.

VFM for all but senior pay a damp squib?

Again, despite the rhetoric neither additional powers nor naming and shaming will feature in the new system. Instead, the numbers of those earning above the Prime Minister’s salary will be published and ‘advanced monitoring’ will take place if there is a concern. Institutions are required to publish value for money statements to show students ‘how their money is spent’. OfS can conduct and ‘efficiency study’ where there are concerns.

BA in ‘Document Version Control Studies’ at Acme University

Other eager wonks who downloaded the documents first thing today may need to do so again – a revised “final final” version replaced the initial regulatory consultation shortly after lunch. Pagination and footnotes were updated, and there were two small textual changes: OfS subscription fees were originally slated to be waived for new market entrants at the discretion of OfS, but this then only became a possibility of such fees being partially subsidised. And, wonderfully, Acme University (from the “year in the life” example) became Acme College as of about 2pm today. We know that OfS will act swiftly, but removing university title in a matter of hours…?

Find the full Wonkhe index of all documents published by DfE here and all of Wonkhe’s coverage of the new framework at #Regulation.

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