Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

It’s hard to imagine there’s a big audience for OfS board papers – so at the risk of sounding hopelessly selfish, it would be super cool if we could get some warning that they’re coming, and even cooler if they didn’t otherwise manifest in Wonkhe staff consciousness at 4pm on the eve of a double bank holiday when some of us are on uncomfortably full rolling stock on the UK rail network.

Not that any of that impacts on the words that follow, you understand.

Maybe it’s all a tactic. Maybe we’re the blob that it’s good to be seen to fall out with. But we know OfS staff (hi everyone) love these write-ups of ours and we are not going to let transport chaos and a mere platinum jubilee get in the way of that.

So eyes down – look in – as we scrape our eyes across March’s instalment of the English regulator’s corporate governance.

In attendance

We don’t normally cover who pitches up, although it’s worth noting that this was the first meeting for a new board member announced by the Department for Education (DfE) as one Rachel Houchen. She’s the wife of Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who “lives in Yarm with his wife Rachel” and who until recently was assistant headteacher and governor of a local school, making her arguably more qualified than James Wharton to be on the board.

That’s Lord Wharton of Yarm, of course. In 2017, Ben Houchen told Tees Life magazine that he enjoys spending time with Rachel and “a very small group of close friends”, which includes Wharton. The Telegraph has described Wharton as one of Ben Houchen’s “best friends”.

It’s a small world.

3 February Minutes

You’ll remember our perusal of the papers from the time.

At the meeting itself, questions were asked about “the extent of in-person teaching” where it was explained that providers “appear largely to have reverted to in-person teaching” – though “some are retaining or developing elements of on-line provision, for instance in relation to lectures and in response to student feedback or where there is a pedagogic benefit in doing so.” Maybe that’s true, but we’d love to know how OfS knows that, given the lagged indicators and patchy data (notifications and reportable events) on which it forms this kind of view.

Apparently:

in some cases there are accounts of different practice at department or course level where some students appear to be receiving very little in-person teaching.

There’s then a redaction – which we assume is a bit of discussion about the investigations that have now been announced.

We also learn that DfE was jolly pleased with all the progress on student outcomes and teaching excellence, reflecting the new spirit of partnership between regulator and departmental sponsor that characterises things these days.

Later in the discussion on strategy someone stated that OfS’ definitions of ensuring equality of opportunity and quality “are not in tension” (working on the principle that if you say it often enough you’ll start to believe it) and someone else said that as well as focussing on problems in the sector, the strategy “should also be clear about the sector’s success”, advice which would appear to have been roundly ignored.

In the discussion on the paper on regulatory enforcement prioritisation (ie who do we pick on in public first), the carefully written concluding note says that the board “recognised the complexity of this work” and “agreed to consider the issue again when the strategy is further developed and with clearer plans of how it will be operationalised.” We’ll leave what was actually said to your fertile imagination.

Chief executive’s report

Have you been wondering who is doing Susan Lapworth’s old job now she’s acting up as interim chief executive? Well – it takes two people: Jean Arnold (Head of Monitoring and Intervention) and David Smy (Head of Competition and Market Entry) will be appointed as interim directors as “backfill” (a choice of words that must fill both with delight). Congratulations!

There’s a whole screed about these appointments later in the Chief Executive’s report that seem primarily designed to ensure Susan Lapworth has a job to go back to if she doesn’t turn professional – and to ensure these “temporary directors” can do the things that need doing in the interim.

Anyway, the earlier part of Nicola’s update rounded up the various consultations that OfS and DfE had in the field or on the analysis desk at the time. Of some note is a curious formulation around OfS’ very welcome support for providers affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, particularly focused on transnational provision:

We have made it clear that although we will not suspend our usual regulatory requirements, nonetheless given the exceptional circumstances created by the sanctions currently in place, we would not expect to enforce our usual regulatory requirements in relation to any suspension of provision.

OfS has identified five providers to “participate voluntarily” in the review into blended learning – based on notifications, public enquiries, NSS responses, and provider growth rates. Fieldwork took place between April and June 2022 – we don’t get anything more precise than “summer” for the final report.

The Specialist Provider Panel, chaired by noted expert in small and specialist higher education provision James Wharton, was scheduled to meet for the first time in early April.

If you think back to the National Audit Office report on financial stability, this meeting took place shortly after the report was published but before Nicola’s evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (and before her eye-rolling at the Education Committee). There’s an action plan to come on addressing these recommendations at the next Board meeting.

Speaking of best practice in public bodies, OfS is currently coming to the end of a “remote working pilot”, which sets out a balance (we’re not told where this balance is set) between office-based and remote working. Permanent policy will be determined after the end of the pilot (so, any time after 6 June).

Triennial report on the designated quality body (exempt)

This exempt paper is probably the most important thing that the Board dealt with this month – and it concerns the future of the Designated Quality Body (a role currently held by the QAA). The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 provides that OfS can make a recommendation to the Secretary of State concerning the future designation of the QAA – and OfS has gone uncharacteristically quiet on what they will be recommending.

Certainly, close reading of numerous interventions on quality and standards suggests that OfS is less than enthralled with the world-class peer reviewed approach to quality assurance enjoyed from the QAA by providers in the other three devolved nations and in many other parts of the world. The interim chief executive’s speech the other week suggested that she does not have much time for the assurance processes within providers – developed largely in response to two decades of QAA guidance – either.

It’s a bit of a dark moment in the quality wars, and we should hope that good sense (and the clearly expressed wishes of ministers at the time) prevails.

LLE and HE reform

This is a very straightforward write up of the government consultations on Higher Education Reform (the one with student number controls and minimum eligibility requirements in) and the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (the one that hopes to attract more students who would not previously have considered engagement with level four and above education into the student finance system).

The links above are to our Wonkhe coverage, we recommend that you do what the board members most likely did and read our takes rather than this short, dry, paper.

Access and participation plan reform (exempt)

Almost certainly stuff that John Blake has since talked about in public. OfS points eager readers to its recently published advice to providers in this area.

Board effectiveness review outcome (exempt)

So there’s this independent arms length regulator, right, and it is chaired by a mate of the Prime Minister’s who takes the government whip in the House of Lords. And this 38 year old former MP and friend of the Orban administration has just appointed his mate’s wife (his mate being the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley) to the board.

How’s the Board doing at actually governing the regulator? We’re not told. We guess it’s nothing for us to worry about.

Seriously – we can think of lots of board effectiveness reviews that take place at provider level, the results of which are almost always published – Condition E2 all but requires them of providers, so why the secrecy when it comes to the regulator itself?

Student panel update

Ostensibly a report from the January meeting of the panel, we learn that at said meeting it had discussed the planned review of blended learning practices in the sector, and the proposed TEF student submission.

On the first of those the panel discussed the importance of staff being trained to facilitate blended learning (which former Chair Michael Barber discussed in some detail on last year’s Gravity Assist), that systems should be in place to support all students in the blended learning environment, that staff should check for learning comprehension and that staff should be “continuously improving the learning experience”.

Maybe the actual meeting was more fruitful than the minutes suggest, but given that this encounter was touted as a key way in which students are feeding into the review in the absence of any students being on the actual expert panel, we might be forgiven for regarding the input as a little… thin.

Still, at least we have a flavour of what was said. On the TEF item, the panel “raised many important points”, but we aren’t told what they were.

Then John Blake joined the meeting, and the panel raised points around the need for funding and support provisions for Muslim students, the importance of widening participation and the arts, collaboration with social services for mental health support, and the inclusion of care experienced students.

Again, maybe there was more detail than is suggested here – but “won’t somebody think of X” hardly counts as strategic advice, we’re still no closer to understanding whether/how the panel resolves or determines “the student interest” beyond shopping lists of issues or students to consider, and we are still short of understanding the impact it’s had on actual decision makers or decision making.

Report from the Provider Risk Committee (exempt)

It’s exempt every time. No change here.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

The directors have identified new strategic risks to the OfS – we’re not told what they are, and any discussion of them was parked until the May Board meeting. Data Futures is apparently “on track” – and the May meeting will see new milestones. There’s been no issues in the OfS accounts, and a “deep dive on cyber security” saw OfS’ Chief Technology Officer present on the risks OfS may face – commit members noted the “thoroughness” of procedures.

The Board can expect an annual report from Risk and Audit shortly, it’ll be finalised at the next committee meeting.

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