Remember mid-March, when the pandemic and its impacts were mere speculation from doomsayers?

The last set of OfS board papers from the pre-pandemic era are out, and on one level it’s quite a relief to read something that isn’t all about Covid-19.

As usual, we’ve read them so you don’t have to.

  1. As we’ve come to expect, lots is redacted. A paper relating to the delivery of in-year data was presented, a paper seeking board approval for recurrent and capital grant budgets, and a presentation on freedom of speech and academic freedom has also been held back. There was also a paper to inform board consideration of the next steps on conditional unconditional offers, a draft business plan for 2020-21, and reports from the Provider Risk Committee and Remuneration and Nominations Committee – all redacted.
  2. Some things are missing that January’s papers told us were planned for the March meeting. The items were supposed to include proposals on the future funding method for providers; an update on OfS’ role in relation to student welfare and safeguarding; a follow up discussion on student contracts; a paper on validation arrangements; proposed changes to the regulatory framework to consult on; and an “innovation framework”. It’s not clear whether these elements will ever re-emerge.

Just a minute

  1. The minutes from January tell us that OfS Chair Michael Barber reported that he had met with NHS on doctor training; met with Gavin Williamson who was “very interested” in “many aspects” of the work of the OfS including the TEF and teaching quality; and had met Michael Gove and the Number 10 Policy Unit (a version of which – the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – he used to run for Tony Blair in his youth).
  2. In January’s papers we saw something on Carbon emissions. The minutes from that meeting tell us that the board agreed that OfS should support providers to meet the target of net zero emissions by 2050; that there should be a consultation by the OfS on the future collection and publication of carbon emissions data from providers; that OfS should publish information on the sector’s carbon emissions, and students’ attitudes to climate change; and that OfS should signpost the option of Salix loans to providers – and explore the possibility of linking OfS capital funding to decarbonisation.
  3. The papers contain an update on OfS’ student panel that reveal that because of an intention to move to an “academic cycle”, there was no plan to even hold a meeting of the panel between January and September of this year. It must be a relief that there’s not been much that might require student input that has come up.

What is quality?

  1. A report from the Quality Assessment Committee tell us that they had a chat about Essay Mills and OfS’ approach to student outcomes (“the [B3] baselines for student outcomes had been more generous than the OfS’s policy intention… will consult with the sector…”). Sections 8-22 – covering a paper updating it on the work that Quality Assurance Agency had been undertaking as the Designated Quality Body and its performance against the Key Performance Measures (KPMs) – are all redacted.
  2. What we do know about the discussions about the Designated Quality Body must have made December 2019 a dark month in Gloucester. The QAA should have had a 6-monthly statutory confidence judgement at that point – this was delayed to February 2020. The report from the QAC meeting of 13 February included in the March board papers have a concerning 12 redacted paragraphs on this point
  3. OfS are still analysing the responses providers made to the July 2019 publication of data on grade inflation, somehow. There’ll be a publication eventually.

From the desk of the CEO

  1. The Chief Executive Officer’s report is as pre Covid-19 as you might want. There was an annex on responses to what was then a newly declared pandemic in a (redacted) Annex B. But most strategic thought concerned the aftermath of the election and reshuffle – the department split between Universities and Science made it even more important for OfS to play nicely with Research England and UKRI, and an initial chat with Michelle Donelan was “constructive and positive”.
  2. In trying to make sense of how recruitment in particular, and sector finances generally, would affect the sector we’ve been sorely missing the publication of the Annual Financial Health Assessment – which is as close as we usually get to seeing the recruitment projections providers make. Last time round these were so comically optimistic that even OfS took issue – as this round of projections has an impact on the temporary cap on student numbers for the 2020 cycle these have become an essential element of sector regulation. But there’s still no interest in publishing them – even the initial assessment (Annex A) is redacted.
  3. An eye was also being kept on provider responses to the then current industrial action – OfS had been monitoring student and third party complaints, and the responses of providers.
  4. You might recall from a recent article from Nicola Dandridge on Wonkhe that a new, softer, kinder OfS is on the cards. Her report to the board notes that OfS has “established itself as an effective and independent regulator,” and that “this repositioning was necessary, albeit not always comfortable”.
  5. There’s a laudable plan to make the relationship with the sector smoother (it’s been rumoured that even DfE had raised a quizzical eyebrow) so expect a review of regulatory burden (especially for small providers and FECs), more attention paid to the the style and tone of communications, some regional “listening events”, and (finally!) the revision of guidance “that we know has caused confusion” which of course means the reportable events stuff. Hopefully this means that the more Kafka-esque edges of this guidance, will be dealt with – though one can’t help but wonder whether the OfS’s review of reportable event guidance is itself a reportable event?
  6. How many reportable events a day does OfS deal with? “Up to 11”. There’s been 700 reportable events, and 280 notifications from third parties, since the regulator was born.

On the numbers

  1. The registration numbers are always a highlight of any board paper release – the changes from January to March suggest a low, but steady workrate – with three new providers registered and three new refusals.
 04-Mar13-Jan
Number on register 394391
Number refused1613
Number minded to refuse2121
Decision made but not yet published on the register10
Total decisions made 432425
Assessment closed (due to merger or provider request) 2424
Sub-total of applications with decisions or otherwise closed465449
Provider awaiting QSR or management and governance review2121
Assessment complete and awaiting decision22
Application under assessment4126
Total number of active assessments6449
Application incomplete1530
Total528528
  1. Surprisingly there is no change in the stats on monitoring, suggesting that the board paper just reused the old figures. Oops.
 04-Mar13-Jan
Providers with specific condition2525
Providers with enhanced monitoring261261
Providers with formal communication306306
Total providers with mitigation375375
Providers with no mitigations applied1313
  1. There’s clearly something going on with TEF – an advisory group was established, and the board saw terms of reference and membership. We didn’t because the annex wasn’t published. We know that TEF has been paused indefinitely since the pandemic hit, so it’s not clear what the status of this group is at the moment.
  2. One thing that has been exercising the regulator is its approach to offering guidance on consumer protection. There’s a lovely, accountable, “soft consultation” ongoing regarding the information, advice, and guidance strategy and work on student contracts – all of this is to ensure students (applicants, we assume?) have information available to compare providers.
  3. In fact, there’s an ongoing exploration of the idea of changes to Condition C1 (that’s the consumer law condition) to support action on consumer protection. Excitingly, the paper notes that this “would allow us to use this as a regulatory vehicle to address other issues we are consulting on, such as harassment and the use of conditional unconditional offers”.
  4. There’s a report from the February meeting of the Horizon Scanning Panel. Here there’s a fascinating discussion on “preserving” provision (presumably that is at risk of “extinction”) that might end up being pretty important now there’s a pandemic on. Noting that “it is for central government to reach a view on how value is conceived”, the panel had a break-out discussion anyway – and suggested that it might be about these six things, all of which are now planned themes for detailed yet snarky Wonkhe blogs in the coming days:
  • The extent to which the reason for the provision ceasing is a temporary issue or a systemic one
  • The extent to which the provision ceasing will lead to monopolistic behaviour
  • Is the provision important to specialist health services
  • Does the provision contribute to a minimum level of supply in expertise in a domain, such as languages
  • The public role of the provision in preserving cultural heritage
  • The option value of the provision according to the Treasury Green Book

Usually the “forward look” at the end of the CEO or Chair report is an illuminating insight into the current concerns of the board and regulator. Clearly under the current conditions it is unlikely that the meetings on 21 May and 2 July would have an agenda like this – all consultations (including the big one on the future funding method) have been paused, and for the foreseeable future responses to Covid-19 and the aftermath will surely dominate discussions. But for future scholars of the state of HE regulation in the second and third decades of the 21st century – here we are:

Board forward look

21 May

  • Report from the Provider Risk Committee including periodic “focus on” the committee
  • Report from the Quality Assessment Committee
  • Annual report to the board from the Risk and Audit Committee
  • OfS annual report and accounts 2019-20
  • Finance report
  • Proposals on future funding method
  • Harassment and sexual misconduct – outcomes of consultation
  • Corporate scorecard reporting
  • Follow up on student consumer protection
  • Update on TEF

2 July

  • Report from the Risk and Audit Committee
  • Report from the Horizon Scanning Panel
  • Finance report
  • People update
  • Report from the Remuneration and Nominations Committee including periodic “focus on” the committee

22 September

  • Report from the Provider Risk Committee
  • Report from the Quality Assessment Committee including periodic “focus on” the
  • committee
  • Report from the Risk and Audit Committee
  • Finance report
  • OfS annual review
  • TEF
  • Review of admissions systems

One response to “20 things we’ve spotted in the March OfS board papers

  1. It’s good to see that the regulator continues to demonstrate the high levels of transparency it demands of the secto- oh…

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