Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The return to in person board meetings is a difficult time for any organisation.

For a regulator that has been keen to follow ministers in suggesting no serious learning or conversation can happen online, it must be doubly disconcerting. The raw, coruscating, intellect of James Wharton must be even more intimidating when you are in the same room as him. On 30 September 2022, board members had to deal with all that and more.

With a lot going on in the wider life of the United Kingdom, our favourite current English higher education regulator based in Stoke Gifford had to balance reacting to events (the death of Queen Elizabeth II, whatever it was that Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng were trying to do, Andrea Jenkyns as universities minister) with pursuing long-held agendas on quality and standards. But how did they get on?

Approval of minutes from 13 July 2022 board meeting

If you wanted to refresh your memory of (some) of the papers that went to that meeting, we wrote them up for you earlier this year.

The sheer political pace of this year means that the letters James Wharton wrote to James Cleverly and Andrea Jenkyns as they took up Secretary of State and Ministerial roles respectively may not have been delivered by the time both were replaced in one of 2022’s innumerable reshuffles. Other than getting his crayons out for that, and having a meeting with the chair of UCAS, it seems to have been a quiet summer from the OfS chair.

By contrast, Susan Lapworth had a lot to say about the new series of “quality investigations” – with (at the time) eight larger business and management investigations, and “two to three” investigations on grade inflation, plus the year long investigation at Sussex (work continues, it seems). We get a clarification that the decision to open an OfS investigation doesn’t mean that a provider has necessarily done anything wrong. What may be wrong, however, is providers foolishly complying with the wrong kind of nationally agreed standards when it comes to their own quality assurance. The OfS is considering taking this valuable work in rooting out established and effective quality assurance processes up to governor level.

In the discussion around the ALRA case the Director of Monitoring and Intervention noted that OfS does not have statutory powers to intervene within the FE sector (so for students, studying HE in an FE college, it may be harder for OfS to act to support them). The board, clearly spooked by this case, asked for more stress testing across a wider range of scenarios to ensure providers are financially viable and sustainable – in order to understand the impact of systemic risks.

Elsewhere – a fifth of OfS staff have less than two year’s service. Quite the turnover. There’ll be work on how OfS presents itself as an “employer of choice” to compensate. And the provider risk committee saw an “excellent” presentation on the legal framework for freedom of speech. We hope it is shared more widely.

Chief executive’s report

Once we’re past the grimly amusing intro that details yet another entirely new ministerial team since the last meeting (all of whom have been replaced since), Susan Lapworth’s report informs us that the regulator has been paying “particular attention” to cost of living issues for students, providers and OfS as an organisation – which as far as we can make out if the first time we’ve seen mention of a crisis that has obviously been brewing for at least six months.

There at the end of September, Lapworth was keen to point out to the Board that managers were “working to better understand the impact” of the rise in the cost of living on students – with the implication that action could not be taken until then, because at that stage there was “little reliable evidence to indicate the likely severity of the impact on students”. It was obviously beyond OfS at that point to model, for example, a 2.3 per cent increase in the value of the maximum maintenance loan with inflation running at over 10 per cent.

Members were then reminded about what OfS can’t do (“change the terms of the student support system”), reassured that OfS would be working to ensure that there are “no unnecessary barriers” to students accessing hardship funding (we’ve not seen any evidence of action to that end) and we are told that it was working with DfE both on further modelling, and exploring using its convening powers with providers and holding student roundtables. We haven’t seen any evidence of any of those so far either.

Other than that we learn various nuggets about OfS’ ongoing work in other areas. For example, over 300 people applied to be assessors (whittled down to 54 appointees) for its “boots on the ground” investigations into business and management courses, which got going properly “in the autumn”. OfS are also recruiting more executive staff to manage these. We also discover that it is expecting to undertake assessments of compliance with condition B3 (outcomes thresholds) for around 20 providers this year, most likely the ones that were announced the other week (we don’t get names, of course).

On grade inflation as well as the investigations at three providers that we knew about, we learn that OfS is “expecting” all of the most recent increases in higher classifications to revert to pre-pandemic levels, via that “bold” Universities UK commitment to that end. Naturally there’s no material on the way in which the inflation we saw might have caused appropriate levels of support to kick in to support students to achieve their potential – the judgement that the inflation we saw is automatically bad is baked in here.

Risks to financial sustainability

A fascinating sounding paper on the OfS’ register of system level financial sustainability risks. This signed picture of Suella Braverman was exempt from publication.

Future arrangements for assessing quality and standards

We’ve been looking forward to this one – falling as it did shortly after the QAA’s decision to demit its role as Designated Quality Body in March 2023. Straight out of the gate there’s a classic Blankety Blank puzzle:

EQAR had temporarily suspended the QAA’s registration because of areas of non-compliance relating to the publication of assessment reports and including students on all DQB assessment teams. While it is likely that these areas could have been addressed, [exempt from publication].

What could that last clause be? Something like “but we didn’t want to”? One to order from the National Archive when we retire.

The QAA will still be working up to 31 March 2023, and has committed to complete as much assessment work as it is able to. At least part of the reason for this is that OfS is not allowed to charge providers for this activity like QAA did – an anomaly that was addressed by government in recent weeks.

All this means that OfS needs to build up a capacity to do quality and standards assessments (as distinct from investigations) in house – it will do so from 1 April 2023. The fact that this will involve “scaling up” by recruiting more assessors is noted – and readers in Gloucester will be fascinated to note that this will include student assessors (OfS did not allow the QAA to use student assessors when it did the work). This also means an expansion of executive capacity, so keep an eye on those institutional subscriptions.

The plan seems to be that OfS needs to be in a position to shift this interim role into a long-term responsibility in the quite likely event of another DQB not emerging (any new DQB would need to be EQAR registered to command the esteem of the sector, no EQAR registered agency would be able to take on the work without putting that registration at risk by non-compliance).

OfS is “open to working with a new DQB in principle, but has been clear that we would not wish to do so in practice unless (a) [exempt from publication] (b) this would represent a more efficient and effective solution than an in-house model.”

Supermatch game.

Risks to equality of opportunity

We assume the guts of the consultation we reviewed when it came out back in September. Exempt from publication.

Intervention strategy

How does OfS update its intervention strategy each year? We know now – as of last week – but we don’t get to see inside the sausage machine just yet. Exempt from publication.

Finance report

This is about the OfS’ funding – perhaps detailing how DfE had to give it money to do quality inspections that you’d think might be a part of the core responsibility of a regulator. Exempt from publication – we’ll wait for the annual accounts.

Student panel update

Here we have a suitable-for-board format of the student panel update we have seen previously. Wonkhe Daily subscribers will know that the panel spent its July meeting shaping a research project into consumer protection, advising on support for SUs for the writing of the TEF student submission (despite most of the panel not being directly involved in SUs) and chatting about the blended learning review to no particular avail.

Report from the provider risk committee

Who’s been naughty and who’s been nice? Only OfS and Father Christmas know at this point. Exempt from publication.

Report from the quality assessment committee

The committee got a bunch of updates regarding stuff that has since been made public, and noted them.

The only moment of excitement concerns the “substantial campaign” of recruitment for academic staff to act as assessors or lead assessors. OfS was expecting to be in a position to ask providers for initial evidence and set possible dates for visits during September 2022. The fact that this was only announced to the world in November suggests there has been some slippage.

And there was a “near final version” of a UK-wide statement on regulation which is not published as Annex A. We can only assume that “near final” means it was at the point of being shared with HEFCW, SFC, and DEL.

Report from the risk and audit committee

All the juicy bits have been excised. We know there was one internal audit deadline that has been missed, but we don’t know what it was. And that the Data Futures programme will enjoy a (doubtless expensive) “health check” from KPMG. Finally: a cyber-security “deep dive”.

One response to “18 things we spotted in the September 2022 board papers

  1. “The raw, coruscating, intellect of James Wharton must be even more intimidating when you are in the same room as him.”

    Thanks for that, and for the crayons.

    Not a surprise to see the explicit default for the OfS taking responsibility for QA reviews in house, even if it’s an alarming idea. Given the messaging for the B conditions – explicit statements about annual monitoring and review, and external examining, being unnecessary and without value, coupled with vaguely ominous threats to take action if HEIs kept wasting money on such bureaucracy – and TEF – where all the references for demonstrating excellence above the baseline are to annual and periodic monitoring, and external examining – I guess we can look forward to yet more incoherence in the OfS approach.

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