30 things we learned from the OfS board papers for July 2020

The Office for Students has published board papers for July 2020, and David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson have had a read so you don't have to.

It’s that time again! OfS has published its Board papers for July 2020, and as ever we’ve pulled everything out that anyone might want to note.

Missing

1. We were originally promised a Data Futures update in July board. It looks like it didn’t happen. Likewise we were meant to get a substantive item on NSS – including the now almost fabled postgraduate pilot. Both have been moved to September.

Minutes – May

2. In May the Chair was regularly in touch with ministers in DfE and the Treasury on issues of financial stability in the sector. The scheme to support providers faced with exceptional financial difficulties was under active discussion – and it was noted that, on that, “Decisions may need to be made on a case by case basis and with clear conditions applied”.

3. We learn that in May it was the view of OfS that all providers are experiencing “significant financial pressure”, but there was less concern over the short term (providers are accessing support via banks and government schemes) though longer term things remain uncertain. The delays in university access to the Covid-19 Corporate Finance Facility (CCFF) were discussed – discussions were underway. At this point (August) only London Business School (£50m) are known to have made use of this scheme.

4. The board also got to talking about teaching and learning during Covid, making the expected points about the “baseline” level of quality and also noted that “teaching needs to extend beyond assessments and final exams to employability characteristics and other sorts of skills”. There’s even a reflection that:

The absence of being part of a physical campus or student community and the support offered by this community also needs to be taken into account as part of the overall student experience”

5. Student protection was promised to return to the board in July – it doesn’t appear to have done so in a substantive way, though the Chief Executive did update the July board on the preparation of the market exit consultation.

6. It was agreed at the meeting that there should be a full review of the scheme of delegation in September. The May meeting finished half-an-hour ahead of schedule.

Bonus minutes – June

7. An exciting exceptional board meeting on 4 June focused entirely on the Z3 consultation response, and saw the OfS Director of Competition and Registration defend the idea against a largely negative set (“a plurality but not majority had expressed support”) of sector consultation responses.

8. Fans of professional minute writing will note the superb use of “the following points were raised in discussion” throughout. The board offered perspectives on the purpose and scope of the consultation, the retrospective element of the new clause, the “sunset” clause, enforcement, and equality matters.

9. It is truly a joy to read the meeting grappling with the idea that the sector may not entirely understand the OfS’ interpretation of what HERA says about institutional autonomy. The board felt this lack of understanding should be addressed, because “this would save time in the long term clarifying misunderstandings”. OfS’ Susan Lapworth has had a go at this already, so expect more along similar lines.

CE report

10. A subgroup of the provider risk committee recommended that registration assessments should start up again. This currently applies to the roughly 50 per cent of applicants where all of the information is available – though there will be a need to reassess based on new financial forecasts. Paused and newly applying providers can plead “exceptional circumstances” to get a quick decision in other cases, and for degree awarding powers.

11. Seven providers applied to change from Approved to Approved (Fee Cap). Nine applied to raise their fee cap within Approved (Fee Cap). We don’t get the usual registration tables, but we know from recent releases that 7 providers moved to Approved (Fee Cap), allowing them to raise fees, access high cost subject funding (and other OfS money), and the chance to enter the DfE restructuring regime.

12. The second OfS annual review is coming in December 2020, will be shared at September board, and possibly also discussed in December if needed. It’s absolutely on our Christmas book list and it should be on yours too.

13. There were 890 applications to the new Student Panel – Chair Martha Longdon updated the board in an item we don’t get to see.

14. The much-anticipated Data Futures project appears – hurrah! – to be proceeding to plan. OfS are looking to approve further HESA work over the summer further to a full proposal coming in September. We understand HESA are working with Jisc on this project, so a thumbs up to both sector bodies.

15. OfS is working with DfE on scrutiny of bureaucracy in HE, as part of a wider review of bureaucracy in education. This does suggest that the language on cutting bureaucracy in DfE speeches and publication was more than just crowd-pleasing talk. How much more remains to be seen.

16. You’ll recall that Bloomsbury Institute is one of the providers that OfS refused registration, and in this update we learn that OfS was continuing to defend the appeal, expecting a one day hearing on points of law in September. Bloomsbury were allowed to appeal the “B3 baselines” decision in relation to OfS’ scheme of delegation and the “transparency and rationality” of OfS’ approach to assessing outcomes. OfS legal advice remained that it had “reasonable prospects” of defending the appeal, and Bloomsbury were supposed to be paying the majority of OfS costs for the High Court hearing. Since then we have of course learned that the Court of Appeal has already decided in favour of Bloomsbury. We’ll learn more when the judgement is published later this month.

17. The funding for our new £3m mental health website – Student Space – was approved by DFA under delegated authority. Proposal went through an internal assessment process that involved three external mental health policy experts independently reviewing the idea.

18. Coming board attractions. The delayed chats on TEF, Data Futures, NSS, and Finance are coming on 22 September, alongside a fascinating item “Follow up on free speech and academic freedom”, which we predict will be exempt from publication. The 1 December meeting looks fairly empty at this stage.

Covid

19. In the pack there’s a summary paper on the regulator’s response to Covid that covers off stuff like that time-limited condition of registration, liaison with DfE over student number controls and its advice on consumer protection. There’s also plenty on Access and Participation, where the focus is on getting feedback from providers and then getting what were supposed to be 5 year plans back on track.

20. On financial viability and sustainability, we might have expected the board to see some of the detail that we don’t – but apparently not. All we know from this bundle is that OfS’ assessment is that it expects all providers to be able manage the short-term financial impact (i.e. that falling in this academic year ending 31 July 2020) although the picture for the next academic year is euphemistically described as “less certain” until the current student recruitment cycle is complete. If that sounds familiar, it’s because exactly the same analysis was presented (and minuted) in May.

21. We already knew that it thought that a small number of providers at increased risk of market exit in the next six months – hence its proposed new remix of Student Protection Plans.

22. An interesting Annex underlines just how bad a fit an outcomes focussed regulator is to assessing the handling of a pandemic. In the early stages it was relying on its odd notifications (that absolutely are not complaints) process, counting complaints to OIA that probably wouldn’t have come in yet, providers reporting course closures and chats with providers about finances. No wonder Robert Halfon was confused.

23. We get a little more detail on that polling that Nicola Dandridge referred to at the select committee. OfS is currently looking at the surprisingly low 3,000 (!) narrative comments in this year’s NSS responses that mention coronavirus, and plans to supplement this by additional student polling asking questions about what was positive and negative about students’ experience over the last term. Where the results of the polling reveal practice that could be usefully shared with the sector, it will publish Briefing Notes or other relevant communications. Surely some of those 3,000 comments or that polling could have helped inform provider planning for September – but nothing has been published so far. It will also repeat this polling exercise in the autumn to gain insight into students’ views about providers’ hybrid approaches into the start of the next academic year.

E&D

24. The board saw the OfS’ annual equality, diversity, and inclusion report. It’s important but not enthralling stuff, reading as a summary of the plans and actions developed to ensure the regulator complies with its duty to “have regard to” equality considerations from HERA, and the requirement to annually publish details of compliance with specific duties in the 2010 Equality Act.

25. Annex A gives a good example of the way OfS are doing this, and also offers an interesting perspective on how interested DfE currently are in TEF:

Eight out of the 15 members [of the TEF Advisory Panel] are female, and four of the 15 members are from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds- therefore exceeding our targets. Whilst the membership is subject to change, and the co-opted DfE position is currently vacant, this is a pleasing starting position for the group’s activities.”

26. It looks like the use of NSS in regulation more generally is on the rise:

During the coming year, we intend to develop our regulatory approach to student outcomes further, and also our broader approach to the regulation of the quality of provision. We are looking to explore how NSS data could become a more central component of our regulation in this area, This will include development of our conditions of registration relating to quality and standards and the next phase of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework.”

27. OfS has also set itself internal EDI targets – notably that around two-thirds of all appointments at band 11 or above should be women over a three year period, and 55 per cent of all appointments should be men over the same period (currently 66 per cent of all staff at OfS are female).

28. Appointments at band 10 and above should be about 20 per cent BAME over a three year period, and 20 per cent of all appointments should be BAME annually (9.3 per cent of current staff are BAME) . Seven per cent of appointments at Band 10 and above should be LGBT+ over a four year period (9.6 per cent of current staff are LGBT+). Band 10 and 11 appointments are quite senior roles – regular banding goes up to band 12. All this is hampered by OfS having quite a low disclosure rate for protected characteristics.

Horizon/Risk

29. Back in May Michael Barber’s pet Horizon Scanning Panel met, and had some observations for us to chew on. It says here that the pandemic has challenged the seemingly long-standing assumption that international fees can be relied upon as a growth area; that social distancing may be required for an extended period of time; and inequalities have been exacerbated both within the education system and society more broadly. We also learn that the social aspects of the student experience may be very different if social distancing must remain in place and that “effective reopening strategies will be critical”. What would we do without this?

30. There are some specific reflections on the great online pivot. The panel thought there may be a possible higher dropout rate,potential downward pressure on fees, movements towards the “unbundling” of higher education and greater competition from “disruptive provision” – so much so that there is an opportunity across all ages and stages to “reshape what education means”. It’s almost as if Covid-19 represents an educational avalanche.

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