26 things we spotted in the April and May OfS board papers

The Office for Students has published board papers for April and May, and David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson have had a read so you don't have to.

Though Office for Students minutes generally cover a whole range of issues, this was very much a Covid-19 special – with most discussion at both recent meetings (April and May) devoted to the pandemic and responses to it.

And yes – you read that right, the board snuck in an “exceptional meeting” in April, though we don’t get any papers other than the minutes.

May with Nicola Dandridge

1. If you’re waiting to join the OfS register, you may have to wait a little longer. The work currently in the system has been prioritised, and no new applications are currently permitted. If you already have your application in, it will still be moving to a final decision – unless there is significant information missing, or the initial review of your application was a no, or where a Quality and Standards Review is needed.

2. The next TEF exercise will be in 2022 at the earliest. The beleaguered precious-metals-based ranking scheme is still under development (and we’ll hear more if the Pearce Review is ever published). OfS is aware that 2022 is the year of the REF, and promise to be sensitive about not conflicting with those deadlines. If you’re missing all the TEF fun you’ll be pleased to hear that two provisional awards have been made to eligible providers new to the register.

3. In the Before Times we reckoned the OfS Funding Review would be this year’s big HE news – it is still paused, and the shifting spending review timing means that there is little clue as to what the timeline would be. There is the suggestion that early progress will be made on funding for small and specialist providers.

4. The UniConnect programme is also in an uncertain space. There will be support for a collaborative outreach programme for 2021-21, with new funding arrangements coming in 2022-23.

5. OfS has been getting it’s own house in order. An internal Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion group has recommended a review of OfS recruitment processes, new staff training courses, and an EDI advisor has been employed.

6. The Student Panel Review continues – recommendations will have come to the July board meeting. Remember when the Student Panel was a big new thing for the new regulator that would bring the student voice into the heart of the system? We do.

7. In the ever-essential comms report we learn that the coronavirus pages of the site are the most popular part of the site. OfS has been in regular contact with NUS, mission groups, and representative bodies.

8. The Bloomsbury registration legal battle rumbles on. OfS is seeking to recover the remainder of their legal costs from Bloomsbury, who are pursuing a second application for permission to appeal (their first was turned down by the High Court). The board is told the regulator has made a “compelling written submission” arguing that permission should be refused.

9. DK loves the data reconciliation process, and he’s delighted to find a table showing changes to published grants over the past three years. These stem from issues in the way student numbers are reported, and have been a feature of funding since forever. Here’s the table:

ProviderTotal adjustment to recurrent grant for 2017-18 and 2018-19Adjustment to recurrent grant for 2019-20
Total£186,865£27,896
University of Bolton-£64,825£30,482
University of Chester-£555,071
University of Hertfordshire-£138,300-£3,234
Leeds College of Building-£14,256£51
University of Leicester-£277,094£5,189
University of Liverpool£1,292,927£2,683
University of Manchester-£147,410-£9,397
Manchester Metropolitan University£374,531£1,060
North East Surrey College of Technology£17,476£477
South Thames Colleges Group-£107,822
St George's, University of London-£25,164
Staffordshire University-£59,559£1,395
The WKCIC Group-£93,039-£1,710
Yeovil College-£15,529

10. Coming attractions – TEF returns to the board in September. This month the board was scheduled to discuss options for a survey of postgraduate taught students, an update on Data Futures, and the OfS staff survey.

An exceptional meeting

11. As referenced above we learn that the board held an “exceptional” meeting on 9 April for 90 minutes, officially to keep the board up to date on developments and deal with what had become two manjor challenges arising from the pandemic – the financial sustainability of the sector, and concerns around admissions in the summer. Most of the meeting was dedicated to giving the top team the powers to publish proposals for that new and ambitious broad condition of registration on admissions (“sector stability and integrity”) that was eventually narrowed.

12. No papers are published for the meeting, but the minutes do reveal that the business plan has been junked in favour of a focus on “seven strands” – learning and teaching, exams and assessment (which OfS released guidance on in early April); admissions (covered later); and financial sustainability and “market exit” (again both covered later). Remaining strands included “returning to a new normal” (switching on regulatory responsibilities again in a sensible and managed way), and the continued functioning of the organisation activities identified from the existing business plan that it couldn’t pause.

13. On financial sustainability, in a paper that was presented that we can’t see we learn that a “significant number” of students and providers were affected by OfS’ modelling; that there was no evidence of an immediate failure of a provider but there were risks in the medium term (ie from the beginning of the next academic year); and that providers as providers were required to tell OfS if they were going to reach a position of less than 30 days’ liquidity at any point in a rolling 3-month period, a “small number” of providers had been in touch to that end. We had a quick look at whether it’s wise to keep analyses like this a secret here and here.

14. On learning and teaching, the board was told that guidance had already been issued to the sector making it clear that students should “expect a minimum level of teaching during the pandemic”, and that students would be “encouraged to notify the OfS” if they felt this was not happening. Given HEPI/YouthSight polling suggests a third of students aren’t happy with what was delivered, we can only assume that notifications@officeforstudfents.org.uk has been absolutely deluged.

Covid in confidence

15. A treat for us all now – we don’t often get to see a paper that says: “This paper and its annexes cover policy in development and are therefore exempt from publication.” and yet here it is – “Covid-19 (Coronavirus) response”. Lucky us.

16. The guts of it covers stuff that has since been published, though we’d like to dwell for the moment on the poignancy of this paragraph:

If [bailout] funding were to be provided by the DfE, it would be essential that the DfE and OfS work closely together so that the OfS’s regulatory powers (for instance Condition D relating to financial viability and sustainability and Condition C3 relating to student protection plans) were aligned with DfE interventions, without fettering the OfS’s decision-making.”

Isn’t that sweet? The last thing anyone would want would be a bailout for the sector that somehow “fettered” the ability of the OfS to make the kind of high-quality dynamic, data-informed decisions we have come to know and love.

17. There’s been a little bit of IFS happening at OfS – it’s only a vowel away from the truth, after all. Unpublished financial modelling of institutional risk sees “low”, “medium”, and “high” impact models, with the former looking at a 20 per cent reduction in international recruitment for 2020-21 that the board felt was far too optimistic. It’s notable that even the IFS “optimistic model” looks at a 25 per cent reduction.

18. Again, like the IFS report, a “small number of providers” are seen as being at an increased risk of market exit over the next three years – and these would have been delighted to chat through their survival plans with their favourite regulator, who has been “engaging” with them. Most are securing access to finance, and cutting costs, so will survive. Two providers had to report themselves to the OfS for dropping below 30 days liquidity.

19. The Office for Students has been thinking about students again, noting that many are struggling with a lack of space to work, a lack of IT equipment, and the disappearance of their part-time jobs. It’s also recognised that some groups (particularly those in priority groups for access and participation) are more at risk. The OfS also notes that student accommodation is outside of its powers.

20. Other people that OfS has been chatting to include OfQual, who were told that their A level proposals for 2020 were “robust” alongside some advocacy for consideration to be given to under-represented groups who could be late developers.

NSS, Discover Uni, and the “new normal”

21. Discover Uni keeps getting better and better! The search function has been smartened up, and the logos of the four funding bodies have been added. There’s more user testing to come – and OfS is also working with UCAS and The Student Room on the wider availability of information, advice, and guidance for applicants.

22. We’re not far off the publication of this year’s National Student Survey. Back in April the word was that students were positive about the fact that they got chance to feed back on their learning. By now the data is with OfS, and it is busy analysing the impact that Covid-19 has had on responses and the response rate. All this analysis will help inform decisions on how the data will be published and presented. And planning for an all years NSS pilot continues, though the consultation is on hold.

23. As we approach the near-mythical “new normal”, OfS is considering how to move back to its regular regulatory regimen. It’ll be a phased approach, and there will be time to review the helpfulness of previous requirements. There’s also not going to be a sudden restart of all outstanding consultations at once, we’ll ease into that too. Scenario planning has focused on a possible future with more digital and online learning, less international travel, fewer international students, and a harsher graduate job market. Expect to read more in the new OfS Strategy – due April 2021.

In-house matters

24. How does one regulate in a time of pandemic? OfS has assumed remote working for the foreseeable future – staff have been allowed to pop in (carefully) to the office to grab the chairs and monitors they need to get on with their work. An early flurry of meetings at all levels has calmed a little – delivery capacity is reported at 90 per cent, and staff sickness is low (though hardly anyone is taking leave).

25. OfS lets part of Nicholson House to CareUK, who have continued to use the office. Twenty staff there tested positive for Covid-19, so the whole building has been deep cleaned. Some OfS staff may have been in the building during the time, albeit on a different floor, and thankfully there have been no reported infections.

26. For fans of international comparators, Annex A of this paper has a great summary of the way HE systems around the world have gone into and come out of lock down. If anyone in the OfS fancies writing this up for Wonkhe, we’d be delighted to publish it.

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