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26 things we learned from the OfS board papers for November 2019

A set of board papers? Oh, OfS, thank you! David Kernohan picks out the shiny silver sixpences from this particularly figgy pudding.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

We don’t want a lot for Christmas – there is just one thing we need.

We don’t care about the presents, underneath the Christmas tree. We just want the OfS board papers. More than you will ever know.

Make our dreams come true

OfS Board papers tend to sneak out at a time when journalists won’t have capacity to go over them in detail – usually 4.30pm on a Friday (or – like now – four days before Christmas). While we are always willing to rise to the challenge, there is a lingering suspicion that a regulator committed to public scrutiny would perhaps forego the chance to give us a surprise and publish to an agreed timetable.

How about 2 weeks after the meeting, OfS? A decent clerk will have the first draft minutes done by the end of the day of the meeting – take a day for tidying up, put it through CEG the start of the next week, circulate to members for comment and give them a week to respond. Then publish on a pre-announced date. Easy.

I don’t need to hang my stocking

We’ve discussed before the regulatory love of redaction – those wanting to read about changes to the TEF, the proposed student engagement strategy, regulatory finances (though there are some hints in other papers), the work of the provider risk committee, and the annual report on Prevent will be disappointed this year.

There upon the fireplace

Alert readers also will search in vain for information about Data Futures. I’d perhaps suggest that a continuing pause to the programme that will generate the near-real-time data that Michael Barber wants for his regulatory dashboard (and underpins the entire approach to regulation) would be something that might come before a Board, especially after the apocalyptic language in September’s papers.

Either OfS will have to rethink its approach to regulation, or unicorns do exist and the collection of huge amounts of good quality real-time data from an astonishingly diverse range of providers is possible after all. Single biggest issue facing the regulator – nothing at Board. Most odd.

There’s also some good clues in an envelope on the forthcoming review of funding. The proposed framework that’s coming soon for recurrent funding is based around three themes. First is courses, where the proposed approach will support the “quality” of provision, the “choice and experience” available to students and the “wider economic and social benefit” of higher education. Understanding costs within this theme “would be important”, as would “driving value”.

The second theme will be students, where investment should be focussed on “where it can most effectively reduce gaps in equality of opportunity in access, success and progression” – moving towards an “explicit link” between funding and the commitments in access and participation plans. And the third will be providers- where investment will “protect and promote” “world leading provision”. Exciting stuff.

Anyway, here’s some other stuff we spotted:

Santa Claus won’t make me happy

1) The OfS is in the dock! Well, not quite, but there are three ongoing judicial reviews, two relating to our old friend – registration condition B3. And the regulator confidently expects another one to follow before the end of 2019, “as a result of other decisions to refuse registration.

2) A small number of Access and Participation Plans have been approved for less than five years because they needed “fundamental changes”. Plans approved before October 31 are being analysed and the Board will see a paper in January – reading between the lines this was supposed to be November.

With a toy on Christmas day

3) The OfS has been writing to providers about unconditional offers – we don’t learn how many, but we do learn the rationale that determines the choice. Providers who have high levels of conditional unconditional offers, or have recently increased their use of unconditional offers probably got a little note in their Christmas cards.

4) And a round robin is also cluttering the mantelpiece of providers with a statistically significant overall increase in the “unexplained” proportion of first class degrees since 2010.

5) There’s a tiny bit of information about the OfS review of admissions (of course separate from the UUK one – market forces will decide the best one, we expect). There’s an imminent (“after a new government is formed”) consultation on the way, and we learn that the review will consider the direct impact of unconditional offers and that old chestnut, post-qualification admissions (PQA)

6) Good news in Gloucestershire! The OfS’ relationship with the Designated Quality Body (the QAA) “following previous difficulties” is “good”.

I won’t make a list and send it

7) We get registration figures as of 14 November. There’s a table below but your headline is that in the period since 16 September the OfS registration team has made a glacial 5 decisions – registering one, refusing three, and pushing the other one to QSR or governance review.

Number on Register387388
Number refused811
Number minded to refuse2020
Decision made but not yet published22
Total decisions made417421
Provider awaits QSR or management and governance review2021
Application under assessment4540
Application incomplete1621
Providers where a decision has not been made8883
Assessment closed (due to merger or provider request1919

8) Some of the mitigation figures have crept up too (though we can’t give a time period as the date is incorrect in the paper). Two providers are enjoying “enhanced monitoring”, three got a scary letter that doesn’t count as a mitigation.

9) Board members are directed to the Wonkhe podcast to learn more about the OfS’ registration report. We endorse this.

10) One number that seems to be rising a bit faster is the number of OfS employees, now at 414, 96 of whom joined after 1 April 2019. Something to look for in the hotly anticipated financial statement.

11) We learn that OfS registration fee income was in line with expectations, but even despite the surplus we calculated the regulation will still be running a small predicted overspend because of “high priority casework”, which we suggest is probably the registration process (the thing that OfS actually exists to do).

12) And it feels everything may not be rosy in the OfS relationship with DfE. The OfS has been reviewed, and changes made to a framework document that sets out how day to day OfS-DfE interactions will work. We also spotted changes to the Board member terms that suggest there have been communications directly between Board members and others – to “comply with Freedom of Information Act provisions” if a Board member is writing to anyone about OfS business (even another Board member) a member of OfS staff needs to be copied in.

I’m just gonna keep on waiting

13) More publications on the way. There’ll be more guidance on value for money transparency expectations in early 2020, which may include a consultation (and thus, we guess, changes to the regulatory framework)

14) We’ll be getting the results of a survey of students and graduates about VfM views in March 2020.

15) There’s a consultation coming very soon, which may mean changes to the regulatory framework to help tackle harassment and sexual misconduct.

16) The annual review and accounts are due in July 2020, but there’s a report on the value for money of the OfS due very shortly indeed (“with the annual report or shortly after”)

17) We have the dates for the next Board meetings – on 28 January the Board will discuss validation arrangements and “amendments to the regulatory framework”, on the 31 March they will chat about the future funding method. There’s also a meeting on 21 May.

18) And there’s a new business plan due out in April 2020, with a new strategy in April 2021.

Oh, all the lights are shining

19) The student panel has been getting stuck into TEF, and the students reckon the purpose of TEF should be to “incentivise continuous improvement” within providers rather than to guide student choice, which tells its own story. They don’t like the current stratification of awards (Bronze can still mean bad), but they do fancy an increased number of awards to identify providers with greater precision.

20) The panel also “appreciated the level of student engagement” included within the subject-level pilot and supported “increasing the level of direct engagement and introducing more qualitative data to TEF”. There was even support for “less reliance on NSS data” as there was a feeling that “it could be gamed” and that low response rates “can lead to unreliable data which then can’t be used”.

21) The student panel also took a look at the Discover Uni website – they liked the simplicity of the design, but felt the look and feel of the website and logo was “quite corporate” and wanted to see changes like “clearly flagging” that the website is for undergraduate courses UK-wide only; including information on gender splits at universities prominently; linking to universities’ student protection plans; and using the website to communicate the OfS’s regulatory work.

22) Incredibly, the Board overall wants to see more OfS branding on Discover Uni – despite it being jointly funded by all UK HE regulators there seems to be a feeling that OfS does all the work! However, there are concerns about the look and presentation of the site.

I hear those sleigh bells ringing

23) The Remuneration and Nominations committee considered pay for the CEO and Directors, although we’re disappointed to see that the detail will remain redacted until the accounts come out next year. The committee “welcomed assurances” that OfS is actively seeking ways to address the gender pay gap and that an equal pay audit has been commissioned to to presented to the next meeting.

24) In a terms of reference amendment, it’s also nice to see “the student member of the board will normally be appointed to this committee, and “if this is not possible, an appointment may be made from the student panel”. If OfS can do it, what’s stopping the vast majority of universities?

25) We also spotted a subtle reshaping of the terms to give central government more say over senior pay – some decisions may require government approval. The CUC code appears as an annex.

Won’t you bring me the one I really need?

26) Michael Barber’s Horizon Scanning Panel is still exercised about the lack of innovation in provision. There are three new projects – a look at the impact of the regulatory framework, using “novel data sources” (including 2004 style “web scraping”), and evolving the classification of business models so they can understand how what the OfS does has an impact on the sector. It’s never too late to develop an understanding of the organisations you’re regulating, it seems.

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