It’s OfS board papers time again, so brace brace.

In September’s exciting episode there’s exciting news on Data Futures, the admissions review and a carefully written up battle between OfS and DfE over the future of the NSS.

Eyes down, look in!

We need a plan

In the minutes from the 2 July meeting, Michael Barber (Chair) noted plans to postpone the regulator’s board planning event from September to an alternative date in November/December. We’ve all been there this year!

Who’s in charge?

There’s a fascinating section on the Department for Education’s review of “unnecessary bureaucracy” where careful minuting reveals just how confused the relationship still is between OfS and DfE. “Noting that decisions will lie with the OfS board, the

DfE will also be looking to take a view on activities that should be retained, reformed or

abolished”, and while OfS’ own agenda to reduce disproportionate regulatory burden is important, the “government’s initiative was also welcomed” – although OfS would need to “ensure that this does not undermine the OfS’s ability to carry out its regulatory functions effectively”. More on that later.

Diversity

A discussion on OfS’ “people” noted that there is a lack of senior BAME staff at the OfS and women at a senior level, with CEO Nicola Dandridge advising the board that addressing these disparities was a priority for her – with additional resource brought in to drive forward the necessary actions.

Do it like we said

The relationship with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as OfS’ Designated Quality Body (DQB) seems to be improving. The minutes tell us that the chair of the Quality Assessment Committee noted that QAA’s standards review reports were “better reflecting OfS’s requirements for risk-based and outcomes-based assessments”, which is another way of saying “they weren’t doing it like we said”. But there’s more on the QAA later on.

A waste of talent

An oral report from the chair of the student panel revealed that 890 applications had been received in response to a recruitment campaign for student panel members, with 50% from BAME applicants, 33% mature students and 20% of applicants had declared a disability. We don’t discover the spread of providers from which the whopping 890 applications had been received, or their quality – but if we really do have the best part of 1,000 students from across the sector this serious about getting involved it seems an awful waste for OfS to only keep hold of ten of them.

Extraordinary stories

As well as July, we also get minutes from an extraordinary OfS board meeting held on 21 August 2020. This is a new one on us – we’ve not seen papers – and it was convened to consider “several significant issues” which had arisen during a “challenging period” for the higher education sector, the Government and OfS – although the actual list of significant issues is, naturally, “exempt from publication”.

Even so, the chair outlined that even before these “specific issues” the OfS and the higher education sector faced “significant challenges”. Specificity and significance abounded.

Six sections are redacted (!) although we do get to see a discussion on the examnishambles. Nicola Dandridge advised that there were approximately 15,000 who met their first choice offers as a result of their grades increasing following the move away from the use of the Ofqual algorithm, and 10,000 – 12,000 of these students were therefore looking to change their place. The risk was that there would be a “disproportional negative impact” on students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and so a taskforce had been set up by the Department for Education to address these challenges. That taskforce has, of course, now morphed into an all purpose forum for discussing HE with DfE.

We discover OfS concern about the impact on students if some courses and providers were significantly over-subscribed – leading to “risks to quality and potential higher levels of non-continuation”, and also the risk that disadvantaged students “slip through the net” due to having less support and less effective IAG. There were also significant risks for higher education providers including financial implications which may arise from choices students make about where to study, given the removal of student number controls.

The next paragraph (which we might assume discussed how OfS would address those concerns) is redacted, although Conor Ryan (Director of External Relations) goes on to say that OfS had published statements, provided “support” to students, and signposted to useful information.

The discussion that ensued noted “significant challenges posed to OfS” by the wider political context, and it was important for OfS to “remain politically impartial and act in the interests of students”. The board needed to consider the implication of 2021/22 admissions sooner rather than later as there was likely to be a “significant impact” from what was happening now on future years, and there was an opportunity to “consider the quality of digital learning”, which was largely untested. “It was important for the board and the rest of OfS to decide how to navigate these challenges and assert its policy position”, and it was important for the organisation to come through the period “with a reputation for competence in getting things right for the benefit of students”.

The B3 bear is coming!

In Nicola Dandridge’s CEO report, we learn that OfS has been working rapidly to launch a new principles-based consultation on its approach to regulating quality and standards that will propose “raising the bar” on quality and standards at provider level, as well as taking account of quality at subject level. That paper is naturally redacted, although we’re expecting a consultation to open on that imminently. We’ve speculated about that at length before. It feels like a suitable metric may also be under development.

Going backwards on access

There was good headline news on participation – nothing new here, but as a reminder UK domiciled students accepted to English providers as at 4 September 2020 was up on the same time last year by 11,500 to 364,000, with POLAR quintile one up 8% compared to growth of 4,400, or 5%, in quintile 5. The gap in participation between the POLAR groups has therefore widened as a consequence of this admissions cycle, even though the number of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds has increased.

See you next year

Some big news on the admissions review – we’d expected that to kick back off this autumn, but OfS has decided to delay the review of the admissions system until no earlier than autumn of 2021 because the “significant impacts” of the pandemic are likely to continue into the 2021/22 admissions year. “We need to be able to consider fully the impacts of the pandemic in order to take a long-term view of the admissions system”, notes the report.

Bridging the divide

The report contains detail of the polling on the digital divide that we saw in September – but what will be done with it, other than informing Michael Barber’s review? OfS is using the insights to inform its approach to “re-setting regulatory requirements for access and participation”, with fresh guidance to providers due in November which will set out how they should report in spring 2021 on the activity and financial support they delivered to students through their Access and Participation plans during 2019-20 – together with any impact the pandemic has had on plans. Presumably this will also ask providers how they’ve been spending their Student Premium bonanza on all students, facing all issues, ever.

Registering providers

We’re still concerned about registrations. In September sixty (still!) applications to provide HE in England were paused due to the pandemic, seven providers applied to change from Approved to Approved (fee cap) categories, and nine applied to change fee limit within the Approved (fee cap) category. Decisions were made for these prior to the SLC deadline of 31 July 2020. Seven Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs) applications are being progressed, with

three paused – including new applications and applications to change or extend DAPs orders. You can track changes in almost real time using this helpful service.

Going for broke

OfS will be receiving interim financial returns from providers on 30 October 2020, which will provide information on their 2020 year end positions and their forecasts for 2021 – which will be used to update its financial understanding of providers. Will we get to see any of that? Don’t bet on it. The last time OfS reported on the financial sustainability of higher education providers was April 2019, despite this being a statutory role. If nothing else we keep hearing MPs raise questions about the finances of universities based on think tank estimates rather than the regulator’s intel, which isn’t great for democracy.

I want a fee refund

There’s a cursory line on OfS’ strategic objective surrounding value for money that merely references its proposals on reducing regulatory burden and work with officials in the Department for Education and the Treasury to prepare for the autumn Spending Review. We note that OfS has still not specified a performance measure for “student and key stakeholder perceptions of value for money”, although we’d guess that it has been looking at some pretty visceral feedback on it from students in that polling it’s been doing.

Beating panel

There’s a whole paper on the review of the OfS student panel, which is one of the reasons that, until a training day in September, the panel hadn’t met since February. Not to worry. Not like there was much going on that might require a student view.

To inform the review, a survey and telephone interviews with the panel members, the OfS board and OfS staff had been held, which feels like an oddly internal assessment for the regulator’s flagship stakeholder engagement exercise.

This is a paragraph that needs no comment:

“Feedback from the panel members highlighted how there was an increased level of understanding of the role from panel members after a period of being on the panel. It was noted that the role differed to what some panellists had expected. One panellist commented that they expected a formal meeting style where panellists make decisions, when the role was advisory, and sessions were more discursive.

Overall we get a carefully written up description of the experience of being on the panel and its interaction with the Board. What we don’t get is even an ounce of reflection on the extent to which the panel has influenced the Board or wider OfS thinking on issues, and as a result we get nothing on the difference it might have made to students. If the student panel met in a field and the Board didn’t listen to its views, did it make a sound?

The burdens

There’s a whole paper on reducing regulatory burden and bureaucracy. Some of this we knew about and was in the DfE proposals to OfS – on enhanced monitoring requirements, random sampling, the review of TRAC (T) and efficiency savings. This all reads as if OfS’ own review informed the things that DfE then asked it to do in its “reducing bureaucratic burden” plans published in September.

However DfE had also “signalled an interest” in reducing regulatory burden in two further areas – the imposition of the “transparency condition” which is mandatory for some providers, and the “student transfer condition” which it imposes to allow it to meet the duty for student transfer arrangements. “In the light of the Minister’s strategic guidance letter” the Board will propose considering these two areas further and will bring proposals back to the board for discussion and approval at its meeting on 1 December 2020.

This seems an odd year for ministers to be insisting on a relaxation of requirements that make it easier for a student to transfer provider, but OfS is going to look at doing even less on this than it has already done.

Fight fight fight

Excitingly, there’s a fully published paper on options for the future of the National Student Survey (NSS). There’s a two-phase review on, the first phase we know about, and the second will look more widely at the survey’s use and what questions should be asked to support regulation including through OfS’ “B conditions” on quality, TEF and student information (in addition to widening its scope to more UK wide issues on behalf of the other UK funders who jointly own the survey). It could also “potentially examine the potential use for access and participation and value for money regulatory purpose”, which will cheer up many in the sector.

Much of the paper represents a fascinating rebuke to the critique of NSS contained in that DfE bureaucratic burden paper we got in September – very much along the lines of their insight brief in February of this year. DfE ministers asserted that since 2015 the NSS has exerted a “downwards pressure on standards” within our higher education system, but here OfS notes that as a result of NSS student feedback, providers have “extended library opening times, bought more e-books, and created more spaces for group work”.

Crucially as well as NSS being the “principal way that OfS engages with all undergraduate students”, it is “used by providers to help them understand students’ views on where improvements may be needed”, and for this information to be valuable for provider-level regulation, “it needs to be at subject level”. Publication is “one of the regulatory levers available to the OfS “ and the publication of the NSS is one way in which OfS incentivises providers to “improve the student experience”.

That’s a problem when your sponsor government department asserts that “its benefits are currently outweighed by these concerns”, that its “results do not correlate well with other, more robust, measures of quality” and the extensive use of the NSS in league tables “may cause some students to choose courses that are easy and entertaining, rather than robust and rigorous”.

The further you get into the paper, the more you realise the extent to which OfS and DfE appear to be at war over the NSS, and how difficult it would make the regulator’s life if it lost its universal annual sample and public results as DfE has proposed. The paper notes that using “national surveys of students’ views’ for individual providers to judge whether the B conditions for quality are satisfied” is in the regulatory framework and gives it “important signals” about whether there are issues in a provider that require further investigation and regulatory action. Indeed, work is underway to explore the use of the NSS “in an OfS regulation dashboard” which would use questions and, more likely, question scales on sections of the survey relevant to the B conditions on quality.

There’s all sorts of nudges here. We learn for example that DfE in England contributes 82% of NSS costs through programme funding to the OfS, which is another way of saying “hi devolved nations, if DfE gets its way NSS won’t really be viable for you on your own”. It also “provides transparent information to prospective students to support them to make good decisions about what and where to study” – another way of saying “so god alone knows what basis they’ll make their decisions on without it”, although frankly most evidence points to prospective students using conversations with actual people to make these decisions.

And “data drawn from several of the NSS questions are used in the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) metrics” is another way of saying “there can’t be a TEF without NSS”, although who knows if DfE would care these days.

Crucially, whilst DfE asserts that there is a sense that the level of activity it drives in universities and colleges “has become excessive and inefficient”, OfS has “not seen evidence to this effect” although will “actively seek out any such evidence” during phase one of the review. DK’s look at the questions in the survey being run as part of the review nods to the extent to which OfS appears to be preparing to go into battle with the DfE’s assertions.

Finally on this review phase – a review group will consist of expertise within OfS, and will include representatives of university management, students and academics across different types of provider. We don’t yet know who these people are or how they will be (or have been) selected. Team Wonkhe stands ready to serve, and you can nominate us here.

Data on the future of Data Futures

We finally get an update on Data Futures, and it feels like – pandemic notwithstanding – HESA and Jisc (as data collection mechanism partner) are getting on with things, and the lingering governance issues have finally been sorted. Further funding of just under £2.6m is sought until March 2021, with a further £7.2m (which includes a £1.1m contingency) for work between April 2021 and March 2024. Yes, that is a lot of money.

What’s interesting is the way that this project – argued as being essential for OfS regulation and as a “technology uplift” for HESA – interacts with the requirements of the more recent drive to reduce bureaucracy. The regulator has pledged to reduce the burden that comes from the proposed termly data collection – and it will come as a surprise to know one that OfS are considering their own needs (risk-led additional collection) first. The review of the in year component will conclude by October 2020 – some nattering with senior managers and professional groups has occurred, but there’s no danger of a proper consultation. There’s some eye opening stuff.

“The current HESA student data collection requirement consists of up to 114 fields for each student. In 2018-19 this meant English providers returned 151 Million items of data for the OfS via the HESA Student Record.”

This is one of those stats that seems designed to make the burden look massive – and the removal of module level data (35m items) and qualifications on entry (10m items) look reasonable. A loty qualifications on entry stuff could likely be derived from other sources (perhaps elsewhere in Cheltenham, for instance?), and there are hints at other methods (from the ILR?) that would need DfE support to become UK wide. But that’s even before we are met with this jawdropper:

“We recognise that it is not practical for providers to ensure that every data item for every student is accurate, although there is often a perception that this is our expectation.”

Accuracy is a word that non-data people see as uncontroversial – here the word is used in the data person sense and is linked to the reduction of quality assurance burden. Here we get the hint that Funding Completion is also up for grabs as a part of the long-promised OfS review of funding. And the sheer amount of additional text about “qualifications on entry” suggests a fond farewell there.

The Data Futures paper has a ridiculous number of annexes – Annex Q(!) apparently looks like the fun one – “how HESA and Jisc will adapt to changing regulatory requirements and possible divergence between the requirements of their statutory customers” is code for concern as to what happens to stuff like TEF when England is forced onto a yearly collection cycle and others collect more frequently. One might speculate whether OfS itself may become certain of its requirements at some point during this process.

Development of the OfS’s approach to funding

Remember back at the start of the year, when we were expecting the OfS review of funding methodology to be the higher education story of the year? Ah, great days. Well, it still appears to be going ahead – with an expectation that main changes will be implemented from 2022-23 for the main elements (and specialist funding and Uni Connect slipping in earlier. This is all subject to something of a governmental log jam – serious work can’t start till after the spending review, which would require a response to Augar (and the other Post-18 review work – including stuff that OfS is working on regarding the unit of resource).

We’re looking here at three sorts of things OfS is interested in funding (“themes”) – in order of funding volume these are courses (“what is taught”), students (“who is taught”) and provider (“reflecting, exceptionally, where teaching takes place”).

The priorities for “course” represent a reformulation of the current “high cost” provision – as widely expected this looks to be much more targeted and linked to priority subject areas (healthcare, STEM) alongside some areas where there is employer demand. For the first time, mode of study appears to be an interest – the example given is part-time provision sought by mature students. There will be a quality bar too – a provider in breach of quality and standards (B) conditions of registration would not be eligible for OfS funding, though the “significant financial consequences” here are noted.

The “student” theme covers access and participation goals that are not achievable via the regulatory approach – engagement with schools (“uni connect”) is noted here, as is the sharing of evaluation findings (the “what works” centre that neatly discharges a function initially part of the remit of an Advance HE predecessor body). Proposals under discussion would address student success (part time, mature students again) and the flexible resources needed to run specific funding competitions linked to current needs.

Finally, “provider” sees the specialist provider allocations under review – it’s not possible to continue with the current model and there’s a review going ahead. Proposals on the table involve prioritising a smaller group of providers to ensure meaningful levels of funding, and proposing particular subjects of interest (with separate teaching and research criteria, the latter in partnership with Research England).

Decisions on the provider theme will be made as soon as 2021 following a consultation out shortly – with a consultation on the student theme due this autumn and the main (phase 1) consultation due over the end of the year. There’ll be a phase two technical consultation in autumn of 2021 with the first allocations under the new model announced in Spring 2022.

Quality takes time

There’s a lot redacted in the report of the Quality Assessment Committee- but sometimes the interest is in what a paper doesn’t say. The Designated Quality Body (that’s the QAA) has never had a great relationship with OfS, the latter of which is widely concerned to really fancy the DQB role for itself.

Preparations are underway for the required “triennial review” of the body, and OfS appear to have decided on a recommendation, based on commentary on the DQB’s own annual report – but all of the information is redacted. Cliffhanger! There’s also a consultation coming on the regulation of quality and standards (phase 1 out in October, apparently…). The committee suggests that OfS takes the consultation opportunity to explain how it regulates quality and how the TEF interacts with B3 baselines following proposed changes, which is presumably why this insight brief emerged in October.

Exit

The Risk and Audit Committee saw an update from OfS’s Director of Regulation on the OfS’ approaches to market exit. There’s ongoing work to identify providers at risk, across several teams within OfS (though the paper from the Provider Risk Committee is not published), and the committee has done a deep dive into the world of “data risk”, finding nothing to concern it.

You can’t touch this

Also judged not fit for public consumption are an oral report from the Remuneration and Nominations Committee – who will replace Michael Barber as Chair? – and a super juicy paper on the consequences of the Court of Appeal’s judgement on the Bloomsbury case.

It’s all coming up

And finally – coming up in December the board will review its risk appetite, jump back in the review of funding, and will review its transparency condition. Then in January 2021 it’s intending to consult on the future of the TEF, and will discuss its review of the NSS.

2 responses to “22 things we spotted in the September OfS board papers

  1. “there can’t be a TEF without NSS”, although who knows if DfE would care these days.”:

    they don’t – the new replacement measures – a single blunt measure [used for programme level access to the loan book) that is a combination of progression and outcomes is to be announced in the next two weeks.

  2. Registration is at the heart of what the OfS does, so am quite surprised to see the suggestion (para 26 of CEO’s report) that the board “was invited to advise whether they wish to continue to be notified of registration refusals and the publication of non-controversial decisions on an ongoing basis”.
    Surely this matters?

    I’m interested in a refusal that has vanished from the record – it was in the bulletin and had its own press release regarding the court action, but now there’s no mention of it. Maybe it’s connected to Item 13 on the agenda: ‘Consequences of the Court of Appeal’s judgment’ where they got an ‘update to the board on the consequences for OfS’s work following a recent Court of Appeal decision’ but in secret as this is deemed to be ‘legally privileged. Surely this matters to the Board?

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