24 things to note in March 2023’s OfS board papers

A new set of OfS board papers from way back in March have appeared. David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson have read them so you don't have to

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

We were always taught that good things come to those who wait.

Well, we have been waiting a long time for the Office for Students (OfS) to update its board papers page – but after many months of clicking, we now have the papers from the 33rd meeting of the OfS board held on 30 March 2023.

As is increasingly the case these days, they’re only really “good” if you like your detail light and your papers redacted.

Minutes from 3 February 2023

It’s been six months since we saw the 3 February board papers – back then Jim didn’t get much from what was published, but quite fancied a look at the freedom of speech item (the paper was, of course, embargoed).

Way back then, of course, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill wasn’t even an Act – the board enjoyed a summary in very general terms of what the new duties may be from OfS’ David Smy, of the sort that you could probably have read on Wonkhe at the time. There’s a chunk of discussion that has been declared exempt from publication, but nothing else really of note.

Elsewhere new student board member Caleb Stevens enjoyed his first meeting – he advised that “he planned to re-focus the panel in the coming months to enable it to better support the work of the OfS”. Others might have hoped Stevens would “re-focus the board in the coming months to enable it to better support the work of the panel”, or even “re-focus the regulator in the coming months to enable it to better support students”, but we are where we are.

There’s an update in very general terms on the process for taking on the work of the designated quality body, and the usual updates are in the usual places. Governance fans will note that the meeting lasted a crisp one and a half hours.

Chief executive’s report

Reminding us how long ago this meeting was, Susan Lapworth announced the start of the Industry and Regulators Committee inquiry into the work of the Office for Students, as well as flagging work on the cost of living insight brief, the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, and the sexual harassment and misconduct consultation – all old news at this point.

We learn that an evaluation of the impact of regulatory Condition B3 (outcomes) was underway, with 40 providers taking part in a telephone survey before July. Investigations were underway at 12 providers in April, with a further 6 selected for assessment and remaining at the “first stage” (whatever that is) due to queries on the data. It appears that the evidence at those initial 12 was in at this point, and the judgement process was underway. For those playing along at home none of these have yet emerged.

What has emerged (last month) is two of 10 investigations with relation to business and management and computing courses – assessment visits for all of these were completed in March with draft reports out in “the next few weeks” (so, early in April).

And of course, we have three investigations into the credibility of awards that were continuing, plus (down the rest of your drink) the two years old investigation into freedom of speech at the University of Sussex.

Among the remainder of things that might have been newsworthy in early summer, we find the news that 231 out of 256 providers responded to the invitation to submit a variation to their access and participation plan back when that was a thing, and the call for bids on AI scholarship generated 26 bids.

We’ve been keeping a very close eye on validation arrangements, and this report to the board brings news that nine colleges got approval to work with the Open University in delivering “high quality” level 4 and 5 qualifications, two of which started in September 2023.

Back in the early summer OfS was hard at work assessing the annual financial return. Some 81 of the 203 submitting providers had performance that required a more detailed assessment of financial viability – but the sector was fine on aggregate apparently. This judgement was apparently reached even after a series of roundtable discussions with financial directors about risks and mitigation.

Remember that agreement with National Trading Standards? Four cases had been referred to them by the end of March – three on contractual terms (stuff like the inclusion of industrial action in “force majeure” clauses, annual changes to terms and conditions on three year courses, and the level of detail of terms), and one on university title.

And there’s a curious note about the “misuse” of Student Loans Company (SLC) funding via sub-contractual partnerships. Apparently some providers in these situations “do not always have appropriate controls in place to protect public funding, and students may not be properly engaging with teaching and assessment”. Imagine that.

And finally has had a first staff conference, including external speakers from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Citizens Advice – plus a session on embracing diversity by learning to disagree well.

Annex A – Changes to scheme of delegation

Annex B – Strategic risks and principal corporate risks

Annex C – Media and communications review

These were all exempt from publication.

Changes to the role of the Quality Assessment Committee

One of the upshots of the Quality Assurance Agency relinquishing the role of Designated Quality Body is that it is no longer the “relevant body” when it comes to advising OfS on any decision to vary or revoke degree awarding powers. Instead, the Quality Assessment Committee will fulfil this role itself (with UKRI feeding in as now on RDAPs). To be clear, this isn’t QAC making the decisions itself, which will be made within the scheme of delegation as now.

Other than two exempt paragraphs, it all seems fairly straightforward, but because this needs changes to the remit of the committee and the scheme of delegation, the board needs to weigh in.

Prevent duty: monitoring of compliance by the OfS

Exempt from publication.

Outcomes of board effectiveness review

Exempt from publication.

Finance report

Exempt from publication.

Student panel update

On 2 March, as we know from the minutes, the panel discussed the harassment and sexual misconduct consultation (and the pilot prevalence survey), and the equality of opportunity risk register. On the former, the panel asked about postgraduate research students who also have teaching roles, and convened an additional meeting on 20 March to discuss how other students can feed into the discussion.

Rachel Houchen, a former teacher and a member of the main board, popped in to discuss her experience of being a board member. The panel themselves have been out and about at the OfS staff conference, advising on expert panels for the sexual misconduct prevalence survey and the postgraduate conversion course competition, speaking on the webinar about the harassment and sexual misconduct consultation, and advising the OfS on how to recruit new panel members.

As ever, while this all reads like a decent focus group, the suggestion that this is the principal way in which OfS gathers the complex and differing views of students on matters within its remit is laughable.

Oral report from the Provider Risk Committee

Exempt from publication.

Report from the Quality Assessment Committee

In the old days QAC mainly used to prepare reports about the Designated Quality Body – but in this brave new era they seem to chat in general terms about ongoing investigations (including the final ongoing ones at the old DQB) and the future role relating to degree awarding powers as detailed above.

They’ll get training on how to do these new jobs, and there’ll be advice from OfS coming on whether you can serve on both the Provider Risk Committee and QAC at the same time.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

OfS “should not pull back too swiftly” from the governance of Data Futures so it is still able to support successful delivery of the programme. We don’t feel like that was ever in doubt, but that’s what RAC said.

Otherwise, the committee seemed happy with risk at OfS, although a generous smattering of “exempt” paragraphs mean we can’t be sure.

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