David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe


Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The Office for Students held a board meeting on 3 February, and as usual we are favoured with a few crumbs from the table in the form of selected and sanitised papers.

As usually a combination of a fondness for redaction and an increasing proficiency in the flat prose that characterises formal committee papers make for slim pickings. We’ve picked out the nuggets of interest from a bowl of largely nothing for your edification and reading pleasure.

Minutes from 2 December 2021

We wrote up December’s papers as soon as we saw them back in January. To that accumulated knowledge we can add that James Wharton offered thanks on behalf of the board to outgoing Director of Access and Participation Chris Millwood. John Blake, his replacement, was being briefed in advance of his start date in January (though he didn’t get to go to this meeting). The Chair has apparently been hanging out at the University of Nottingham and Sheffield Hallam University.

We did not see a discussion for the ages on the government guidance on access and participation – there’ll be more of that in the discussion at February’s meeting with John Blake there. “Burden needs to be appropriate” was the most salient point made in December.

December’s meeting saw discussion of the information publication clause that was added to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill as it passed through the Commons, and a heads up on the National Audit Office report. The write up of Michelle Donelan’s contribution to the December meeting is quite something:

Michelle Donelan, Minister for Higher and Further Education, joined the meeting to discuss with the board the government’s plans for higher education. In concluding the session, the chair thanked the Minister for her useful insights, and it was agreed that future further engagement with the board would be valuable.

You might want to take a moment.

On the Quality and Standards consultation (which kicked off back in July 2021), the board heard that there was a lower number of responses than was expected and that analysis had not identified any unanticipated issues. The board noted that responses had noted the tension between minimum requirements and equality of opportunity – and was told that the OfS saw these two aspects as mutually reinforcing. A quad – the Chair, deputy, Chief Executive, and Director of Regulation – got sign-off on the changes to the regulatory framework.

Everyone seemed happy with Data Futures – a pleasing change from the historic norm – and there was “no concern” it would not be delivered on time.

3 February – Chief Executive’s report

Nicola’s headline was the sheer number of consultations that were either concluding, underway, or on the way at this point in the Office for Students’ life. She notes that this reflects a significant amount of work for OfS staff (we take it the work required of the sector and those interested in it was recognised too).

The data on students changing course is set to become an annual event, with the next iteration exploring the identification of transfers where students were able to use previously accumulated credit that didn’t quite add up to a full first year. This series of publications constitutes a restart of this area of work for OfS, and looks useful ahead of the thinking on credit transfer that started to emerge in the Lifelong Loan Entitlement consultation.

The investigation of the impact of the Statement of Expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct (to be conducted by SUMS consulting) will report in the summer – and there’s a chance that further work may be required here. If you’ve been keeping an eye on Michelle Donelan’s seemingly endless series of roundtables and summits we learn that OfS went to one on 18 January on non-disclosure agreements and one on antisemitism on 27 January. Here, OfS was proud to note that the Statement of Expectations extended to antisemitic harassment.

We get a brief run through on the latest clutch of consultations – TEF, B3, Indicators – and it appears that OfS was pleased with the press coverage gleaned, including the Telegraph “preview” from a “well-placed source”. It’s lovely to see how comfortable the OfS press team is with leaks to the press, and we’d like to support out this new openness by continuing to encourage members of OfS staff to approach Wonkhe with interesting tit-bits of regulatory activity in advance of formal publication because that’s apparently absolutely fine by senior management.

Further publications fly past – the value for money annual report, the recruitment for the specialist provider panel, the review of TRAC. On the latter, the bits of the sector that respondents to the TRAC review apparently felt the burden of the exercise was justified – and KPMG noted that the burden was “perceived” rather than “actual”. There’ll be more benchmarking to generate greater insights in future.

The increase in the amount of capital distributed in 2021-22 came from the identification of £4.4m of additional funds from existing commitments. It’s great that OfS can put its hands on that amount of cash as needed.

Nothing to see here

We’ve had the OfS strategy (2022-25) now, so it is difficult to understand why the related board paper is “policy in development”. The discussion paper on the development of a parallel “enforcement strategy” does sound rather juicy, but is not something mere mortals like us are allowed to read.

The publication of an outline paper on new and continuing OfS work on access and participation has been nixed – this is ahead of advice for providers on updating their current plans and purging bourgeois Millwoodite vacillations in favour of the glorious revolutionary purity of Blakeism due in April.

And the board has been wondering what OfS would do to intervene in cases of potential fraud. We’ve been wondering that too, but the board got to see a presentation and we did not.

The OfS response to coronavirus

If you think back to the back end of last year and the start of 2022 all the talk was of new restrictions that may be put in place in response to the Omicron variant. Those of us enjoying another historic peak in cases right now will be aware that these changes never happened, but we can take heart in OfS’ dogged determination to continue with all regulatory activity during and beyond that period.

There has been some learning from the dark days of early Covid, however – OfS continues to use “named contacts” and “compliance and regulation teams”. Providers are considered to have “had sufficient time to adapt and respond to the challenges posed by coronavirus” so don’t expect any more consideration if it all kicks off again.

There’s some interesting language here on the in-person teaching debate – OfS has been “explicit in emphasising the importance” of face to face, but has also drawn on the Gravity Assist recommendations to emphasise how good digital provision can be. When it comes down to it, OfS is all about quality rather than particular modes – a redacted paragraph that follows this assertion may contain the seeds of the rationale for Susan Orr’s review of digital “cost-saving” provision.

However, Nicholson House is still quiet. We are told the majority of OfS staff have been working at home since March 2020, and have been given all the support they need to do so. The assessment that OfS organisational capacity is at around 85 per cent has been driven by sickness and vacancies rather than school closures (though we think that may have changed now). It also prompts us to wonder what the firepower of a fully armed and operational Office for Students would be like to witness.

In future OfS staff will enjoy a hybrid working policy – which is being trialled through April and May – that we are certain is not just a cost-saving exercise.

Move along

Updates on programme and administration funding are deemed locally sensitive and are not published. The Provider Risk Committee gave an oral presentation so we might spot something in the minutes. And there was a similar report from the Remuneration and Nominations Committee – we’ll get to find out more about how the chair appointed his mate’s wife to the board in the annual report and accounts, we suppose.

Report from the Quality Assessment Committee

This is the QAC meeting of 9 December – which featured “heavily redacted” conversations about the B3 and TEF consultations and the emerging findings of the triennial review of the Designated Quality Body.

It seems that the UK higher education’s four funding and regulatory bodies are preparing a joint statement setting out a UK-wide approach to the regulation of higher education, with a focus on quality and standards. We suspect that it is possible that this will mention the sector-recognised UK-wide agreement that is codified in the UK Quality Code – a central component of the regulation of quality and standards in three of four countries that may be an occasion of sin in England.

QAC also saw a final report on the ongoing analysis of sector policies on spelling, punctuation, and grammar that was published back in October. It is not made clear why QAC only formally saw a copy two months after publication.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

This is as heavily redacted as you would expect. There are apparently some risks associated with the way OfS is operating that have target dates for resolution in March 2022 – RAC thought these dates were more aspirational than realistic. Which is fascinating stuff, if you have a guess at which risks those might be (we are not told).

And – wonderfully – on the “well-placed source” issue, RAC have seen “a small number of information and internal control issues” since the last meeting, which may or may not include someone gabbing off to the Telegraph on the government talking points from the B3 consultation. Apparently these issues were “minor in nature” and “lessons have been learned”. There is “revised guidance” for reporting these.

There’s the usual assurance that Data Futures is on track, and we learn there were no significant issues in OfS funding date processing. A couple of other ongoing reviews are redacted, and there’s agreement on a process for carrying out an internal audit – which will have informed the board when it reviews its own effectiveness in March 2022.

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