25 things we spotted in May’s OfS board papers

A new set of board papers from way back in May 2022 have appeared. David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson are your guides.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

With just four documents released, this iteration of OfS board paper analysis has even less to work with than usual.

The delay in publication is also notable – it is a long, long, time from May to September and much of what then felt current has either been published or overtaken by events. Our usual plea for transparency and timeliness is repeated once again.

Minutes from 24 March

We looked at the papers (or at least the few that weren’t exempt from publication) that went to this meeting back in June. Do the draft minutes tell us anything new?

In the CEO report section we learn that outgoing CEO Nicola Dandridge had been along to the Public Accounts Committee – and an “action arising” was the need to finalise OfS’ KPMs following the launch of the new organisational strategy. We’d probably argue that there ought to be more actions arising than that given the resultant report, which we looked at in June.

We also get confirmation of the planned review of the Higher Education and Research act, and it is suggested that the review of blended learning could be expanded in future to examine preparation for the workplace. There’s a whole section on the triennial report on QAA as the designated quality body – a report that will now never happen.

Later, Dandridge introduced an information paper summarising for the board the main provisions of the DfE’s reform proposals – including the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. She highlighted that these “raise significant questions” for OfS around how it quality assesses modular provision. It sure does.

There’s a more detailed note of a discussion about the new Director for Fair Access and Participation’s agenda. Perhaps inevitably, much of it is about schools – with no mention (at least here) of the cost of living crisis. Is this the wrong set of priorities for the access and participation challenges that are coming?

And apart from a series of redactions and a goodbye from Nicola Dandridge (the chair thanked her for all the support she had provided to him since joining the organisation, the deputy chair thanked her for her exceptional contribution, she thanked the board for the support it had provided to her etc) that was about it. It’s becoming harder and harder to know whether the discussions are as thin as they look, or being even more carefully minuted than in the past.

Chief Executive’s report

From the desk of newly minted (no longer interim) chief executive Susan Lapworth comes a reminder that OfS has released a strategy, business plan, and student engagement strategy to an expectant and grateful sector. TEF and outcomes consultation responses were – at the time the board met – in the final stages of analysis – they have now been published. Likewise, there is delight shared about the response to John Blake’s insight brief on schools attainment.

The liquidation of the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) is to be the focus of a “lessons learned” exercise. Though OfS is broadly content with the way it handled the student interest in this situation (you’ll recall that at the regulator’s urging places were available for ALRA students at Rose Bruford), there’s a keenness that such “market exit” cases can be identified – and thus managed – as early as possible. There’s also a coordination with DfE to ensure that there can be a shared strategic view of the way work and information can be shared and managed.

Coming attractions

Our first hostage to a busy summer is the missing response to the supplementary consultation on the publication of information – the board was told this would be resolved in the early summer and yet here we are in September with nothing. This is a key decision that underpins much of the revised approach to education – and with the defamation exemption now set in the Post-16 Skills and Education Act it is curious that this had not yet been resolved.

The review of blended learning is expected any week now – back in May the panel had just been announced and were preparing to interview staff, students, and senior leaders. We learn that the report to the OfS will underpin a more wide-ranging OfS report on approaches to blended learning that comply, or not, with registration conditions B1 and B2.

Investigatory affairs

The number of regulatory investigations is exempt from publication – we can be clear that there will be some (including the three we now know about on grade inflation) and we get a little more information on the scope of these:

  • The majority will involve visits by academic experts
  • The three grade inflation investigations will be desk based. No boots on the ground here!
  • The outcomes of investigations, and any enforcement action taken, will be published as an encouragement to other providers to improve practice to the benefit of students.
  • A dedicated team is being set up at OfS to do this – DfE is picking up the bill at a cool £1.7m

Despite this new appetite for intervention the number of “enhanced monitoring” requirements has been significantly reduced – from 1.3 per provider in November 2019 to 0.3 in April 2022. This was, of course, a requirement placed on the regulator in 2020’s DfE intervention on regulatory burden – but it also reflects a resetting of OfS’ “risk appetite” following initial registration. For us, this marks a further withering of the work HEFCE used to do quietly behind the scenes to support and (where needed) direct providers – larger issues, requiring investigations and enforcement will be more frequent and more public. Is this the best way to regulate the sector? The jury is out, but it is clearly the best way to look like a “tough” regulator.

Data day

There were 44 submissions to the process to identify “world-leading” specialist providers – the board was promised a conclusion to this process at the July meeting, following decisions made in June. Nothing has yet emerged publicly.

OfS has been in meetings with Jisc ahead of the latter’s planned absorption of HESA and the Designated Data Body role. James Cleverly – who as Secretary of State, gets to do the designation – will have had a recommendation from OfS on this on his desk by now. A triennial report on HESA (as required in the Higher Education and Research Act) will come alongside this – and there will be a committee of the OfS board (chaired by Martin Coleman as deputy chair) dealing with all this.

Once again we get an update on Data Futures – 2022-23 is on schedule, and the board was promised decisions on 2023-24 by the end of July.

Bums on seats

OfS’ trial of hybrid working was shared at the March meeting – the trial itself started in April and ran through to the end of June. Staff could work 60 per cent of their time remotely, and up to 30 per cent could be worked outside of core office hours. Expectations look to have been tempered by a new caution around the effectiveness of working in these conditions, and the benefits of in-person working to younger staff. It all feels a bit Jacob Rees Mogg.

Draft strategic risks, risk appetite, tolerance (exempt)

Why is OfS keener on big, visible, interventions and less keen on behind the scenes enhanced monitoring? It’s an interesting shift in policy emphasis, but we are not party to the paper or the board discussion.

Key performance measures review (exempt)

This also would have been a fascinating discussion – OfS were (rightly) criticised for poor performance measures by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee – as a result of this some new measures will be published in the next week or so. It will be instructive to see whether the clear NAO recommendation to survey the satisfaction of the regulated providers that provide the majority of funding to OfS has been taken up – this was something HEFCE did regularly and took very seriously, so it is odd to say the least OfS has never done so.

Consultation update – outcomes/TEF (exempt)

We don’t get to see the board papers, but the consultation responses are already out.

Financial stability of small providers (exempt)

This discussion was informed by early analysis of the annual financial return, and we’ll get to see it in the – eagerly awaited – sector financial sustainability report by the end of the year.

Student panel update

The panel met for the third time of this cycle on 6 April, where there were three substantive discussion sessions – one on the statement of expectations (SoE) on sexual misconduct and harassment, one on awarding gaps, and another on a potential student panel research project.

In the first session, when asked what areas the evaluation should measure, the panel discussion suggested student and staff awareness of the SoE, communication tactics around the SoE, complaint and investigation processes and support offered to students. These seem impossibly wide, and surely it’s a bit late once the commission was agreed in February, but let’s keep an open mind ahead of a report that must be due this term.

The second session explored OfS’s current practice and future direction on awarding gaps, and discussed examples of interventions instituted by their providers to address awarding gaps (“such as the creation of an attainment gap council”), the need for interventions/activities to be intersectional, and the removal of barriers for students getting involved in this work. Let’s hope something concrete comes of that discussion.

The final topic discussed potential research that could be commissioned by the student panel on OfS’s strategic priorities, although we’re not told what these might be.

Overall we’re still in “this looks like a regular brainstorming session that doesn’t always have the right students in the room for the topics being discussed” mode here – with little sense of the impact it’s having, or the role it might have in defining the student interest, or resolving competing interests.

Provider risk committee (exempt)

The committee met on 16 May, and the board heard an oral report.

Quality assessment committee

OfS’ own quality assessment committee supports the work OfS is doing on quality assessment – the need to document this is telling. We learn an OfS officer will work directly with the new pool of academic quality assessors – attending visits, drafting reports, and helping to form judgements – just in case anyone was under the impression that independence was valued in the use of academic judgement.

If you had mistaken OfS as an improvement agency (like, say, Advance HE) the committee is at pains to be clear that it is in fact a regulator. And there was a useful conversation about the applicability of the new data-informed B condition assessments to the new world of the LLE – the committee were assured that OfS and DfE are in regular contact as government policy develops, with more work coming over the next three years.

And then we move on to the DQB performance evaluation, with the entire proceedings being – for some reason – exempt from publication. There is a hint that QAA were developing new assessment methods.

Risk and audit committee (exempt)

The committee met on 18 May, and the board heard an oral report. Our advice would be it is better to have these things on paper where possible.

Remuneration and nominations committee (exempt)

The committee met on 20 May, and the board heard an oral report.

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