17 nuggets from the 8 February 2024 Office for Students board papers

Everything you need to know from the latest OfS board paper drop, from David Kernohan

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Amid the Easter torpor comes the raw, visceral, excitement of the Office for Students board papers for a meeting held on 8 February 2024.

Perhaps inevitably given the serious financial pressures faced by providers and students, what little freewheeling discussion and insight we used to get from these papers has moved behind a wall of restrictions.

It makes for a dispiriting read.

The less we hear about the machinations of regulatory governments, the more we are likely to draw our own conclusions about what is going on and why. Several recent publications have suggested that OfS is keen to reset relationships with the sector and wider stakeholders – for me, finding a way to communicate what the regulator is up to at a senior level will be paramount in rebuilding trust. Sparse document drops like this do not help.

2 Minutes from the meeting of 12 December 2023 board meeting

It all feels a long time ago now, but among the early stage movements of the Public Bodies Review, and tentative moves towards the early stages of the next OfS strategy the board bid farewell to Martin Oliver and David Palfreyman – two stalwart members who have been there from the very start. It was the week of interviews for new board members, and James Wharton had been visiting the University of Essex.

Elsewhere we are grasping at straws a little – the board were reassured that there were no direct financial risks from delays to Data Futures as OfS no longer provides funding to the programme, that the new OfS People Strategy had been “well received” by staff. OfS quality assessments are also “well received”, apparently, by the institutions they relate to. The final “restricted item” refers to the main business of the Provider Risk Committee – we don’t get any hints as to the other, though for some reason even the name of the item on “financial stability and market exit cases” item has been redacted in these minutes.

Here’s what we made of the papers from that meeting last time round.

3 Chief executive’s report

Jumping straight into quality investigations – there are three quality assessments still in progress, and OfS is using the initial eight to start thinking about regulatory action (since the meeting, we’ve learned that no action will be taken in the four instances where no evidence of concern was found). Six student outcomes investigations have been paused because of data quality issues, with a further six to be selected after the first tranche is complete. The three grade inflation investigations are “ongoing”, and – you guessed it – the free speech investigation at the University of Sussex is “continuing” (drink).

A longer section on implementing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act expresses a hope that a broad range of stakeholders (“particularly students”) will contribute to the then-current consultation exercise. The board was told of positive press coverage and significant stakeholder engagements. Somewhat concerningly for a body that will shortly have responsibility for regulating students’ unions, OfS has

sought information from providers in the Approved (fee cap) category of registration, about their students’ unions. These are the students’ unions that will be subject to regulation by the OfS on free speech matters and to the new free speech complaints scheme. The information we have received is helping us to build an understanding of the size and shape of students’ unions across the sector.

OfS got two new registration applications in December (leaving 41 currently in progress), opened two further quality and standards assessments for providers seeking registration (a then-current total of 13) and opened four further degree awarding powers application investigations (with an aim to open 20 cases before the end of the year). On these latter ones, it seems that providers are often struggling to meet deadlines, so there have been some temporary extensions – with the rather pointed note that:

This creates additional work for the OfS that would be avoided if all providers were ready for assessment.

OfS also now carries out end point assessments for apprenticeship providers – there’s a pool of 80 assessors, and teams appointed for the first five exercises while a further seven are in the schedule. This is a comparatively large chunk of work for the regulator – the expectation is that there will be 50 monitoring assessments in the first year.

Work on regulation to address harassment and sexual misconduct is on the way, with work progressing on a decision about the recent consultation and prevalence survey (no news yet on the earlier consultation). We are told that OfS is testing its:

proposed definition of harassment to ensure it aligns with our emerging policy position on free speech

It seems a lot of recent board meetings have dealt with sector financial stability, though we never get to see the papers in question. The annual report on this is expected in May 2024 – but the board were told that OfS has seen an increase in the number of providers at risk of market exit – so an accompanying publication will highlight (surely a little late?) the importance of early mitigation action and some practical considerations for providers thinking about transformations or mergers.

This meeting was held shortly after the publication of the NAO report on franchised higher education – there was a substantive item in the meeting (not published of course), but we are told that monitoring requirements for lead and delivery partners were increased in 2023, there have been some data audits, and engagement with governors and accountable officers. This all must have led to the announcement of the investigation into Leeds Trinity University.

And finally – data futures (surprisingly not a board item for this meeting). The data is good enough to operate the Graduate Outcomes survey and National Student Survey, but for anything else mitigations have been put into place (with 20 providers needing to make data amendments). The goal has always been robust rather than accurate data, but it seems we didn’t quite get there. An independent review will be supported by a reference group including representatives from across the UK, programme funders, providers, and other stakeholders. I’ll leave my phone on.

An OfS communications review – also presented by the chief executive – was not published. “Copyright issues”, apparently.

4 Intervention strategy 2024-25

Not published – policy in development.

5 Trends from Annual Financial Returns

Not published – but see the note above.

6 Risk Report

Not published – sensitive information.

7 Finance Report

Not published.

8 Report from the student panel

A very sparse report notes that Nkechi Adeboye has been appointed as deputy chair of the panel. An 18 January meeting discussed freedom of speech, student engagement in access and participation plans, and saw training delivered on how parliament works. I only tell you that last bit as we are yet to see any student panel minutes for 2024.

9 Report from the Quality Assessment Committee

Honestly, very little to report from the meeting of 11 December. Again we get the notion that OfS quality reports have been positively received by the sector, there’s a timetable for DAPs assessments discussed (but not published), and a little bit of chat about TEF.

10 Oral report from the Provider Risk Committee

Which is not the same as:

11 Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

This is very much a committee in flux, with two new board members and two new independent members shortly to be appointed. It’s a good thing there are so few risks around. Susan Lapworth did rock up to chat to the remaining members (very much along the lines of the update she did for the board), so there’s that.

The committee put on record that they felt the OfS response to the Industry and Regulators Committee report was “measured and constructive”. Further discussion on this was exempt from publication.

The language around Data Futures, in contrast, was rather pointed. Members were keen that an independent review would explore why Jisc had “not been able to deliver the DF platform and data collection effectively”, and why assurances given by Jisc to both OfS and the quarterly DF delivery board “had not proved to be reliable”. Big questions, both.

A “cyber security deep dive” yielded plans for a new cyber security strategy for 2024-2027.

Wonderfully, a committee effectiveness review has given a thumbs up, though it had suggested that the visibility of the committee’s work (including adding more details to these board reports) would help matters. We concur.

12 NAO report on franchised provision

Exempted, but see the note above.

13 Restricted item

14 Restricted item

Of course, nothing on these two.

3 responses to “17 nuggets from the 8 February 2024 Office for Students board papers

  1. Great update, although I think you may have mixed up your Martins – Martin Coleman was (I think still is) there from the beginning, but Martin Oliver, stepping down to join Ofsted, a much more recent addition (2023?). Very sad to see David go, I always enjoyed (and learned a lot from) his insightful contributions to the board.

  2. “An independent review will be supported by a reference group including representatives from across the UK, programme funders, providers, and other stakeholders” (OfS Chair), who’ve sat alongside JISC on the DF Programme Board throughout. If it’s to explore why Jisc had “not been able to deliver the DF platform and data collection effectively” (Risk and Audit Committee), it might cast an eye over the design requirements of those seeking the review — like shifting the burden of funding returns.

    JISC sold statutory and internal data customers the ideal model they wanted, they all assume compilers will cobble together whatever’s required — they always do, they have to. Even now the Risk and Audit Committee suggest, “once the system is bedded in, it could deliver the original aims”. But ‘the system’ is an automated query machine that generates more validation rules & queries. By imposing the funding & analytics model data customers wanted, on a data return HESA had built-up over years and augmented with invaluable enriched data, JISC cooked the golden goose as required.

  3. How very inconsiderate of providers not to be ready for review and cause the OfS more work! I wonder whether the regulator might find more people ready for review if they gave better guidance about what a review entails and how providers should demonstrate they’ve met standards? Just a thought…

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