32 nuggets to note in OfS’ September and December board papers

Paperwork from England's higher education regulator board meetings has emerged again. David Kernohan reads too much into what isn't redacted so you don't have to

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

It’s probably best that we level with you at this point – we have reached what we must hope is the nadir of OfS board paper publication.

This most recent pair, covering meetings held on 28 September and 12 December 2023, come nearly six months after the last release – and respectively one and two quarters after the meetings they describe. The majority of items are redacted, or written in such a way as to avoid revealing anything of current interest.

It’s hard enough to think yourself into the back end of last year, and harder still when the amount of redaction is so overwhelming. There are, to be perfectly frank, very few nuggets of gold in this carefully drafted collection. But nevertheless, we persist.

Fans of this storied arm of Wonkhe coverage will note that we are focusing more on the minutes at this point – these are the areas where we feel there is most new information to share these days.

36th meeting of the OfS board, 28 September 2023

Minutes from the meeting of 4 July 2023

If you think back to our coverage of the July papers we were mostly concerned about “existential threats to humanity” from AI, and a handful of restricted papers. The board learned that the overall picture on data futures is “more positive than in the past” – which must be a tiny bit embarrassing for the Risk and Audit Committee at this point.

We learn from the minutes themselves that proceedings kicked off with the perennial issue of senior staff pay. No, not those overpaid vice chancellors, more the way Susan Lapworth plans to remunerate her hardworking directors, and the delegate authority under which James Wharton decides how much to pay the CEO. This item had a “separate confidential minute” that we don’t get to see.

Tom McIlwaine starts as Susan Lapworth’s representative on earth and own personal Leo McGarry (Chief of Staff). Kate Leander is stepping down from the board, with Katja Hall taking over the Risk and Audit Committee. And where’s James Wharton? He’s been to visit the Matrix College of Counselling and Psychotherapy, and Norwich University of the Arts.

Early summer of last year was the time of the UCU marking and assessment boycott – so OfS wrote to affected providers, and learned in the main that there was no (or limited) impact on students, which will come as a surprise to many of them.

Actual news – the spectacularly successful Short Courses Trial has concluded – we were expecting another year of it. Maybe DfE feels like it learned enough about how popular the LLE might be from the first year. We learn from elsewhere in the papers that existing participant providers can run courses through to the end of the 2024-25 academic year.

We still don’t know what those exempt from publication papers were about – we do know that James Wharton left the meeting after the first one, with Martin Coleman taking over from then on in. Take from that what you will.

That refreshed approach to student engagement must have been a blast – we learn that student panel is keen that changes are made (indeed, three members have now left), and that the board feels like it needs more information from students than it can get via the panel including by meeting students separately from staff on provider visits. The agreement is that OfS will make better use of the data it has, and accept the IRC committee request that it will report annually on this work.

And on that existential moment – it seems the AI discussion was inconclusive – and the whole issue will come back to the board in February 2024. The fate of humanity might be hanging in the balance, but the B Conditions remain oblivious.

Chief executive’s report

At this point, two of eleven quality investigation reports (the ones about business and computing provision) had been published – a further five had been shared with providers for comment, with the remaining four being polished by the OfS assessment teams.

There were also 12 investigations on going on B3 (student outcomes) issues – providers were expected to hear about these in “the coming weeks”. And add to that the three ongoing “grade inflation” investigations, and of course the University of Sussex on freedom of speech (“We continue to progress our investigation” – drink).

On TEF we learn that 22 of the initial clutch of published results had seen providers make “comments about the factual accuracy of the panel’s draft written statement”. This is a separate category to the 52 reports that weren’t published in September because representations were being made by providers – for the former group OfS just went ahead and published anyway.

The board heard about the plans for the phased implementation of new freedom of speech duties, with the full effect of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act not being felt until 1 September 2025. The early (well, August this year) start of the complaints scheme, SU regulation (we will shortly get a new consultation on guidance), and statutory duties will inform the development of the conditions of registration. And the overseas funding monitoring (a late amendment to the bill) also kicks off in 2025.

OfS expects to receive “increased funding over the coming decade” as a result of the NHS’ Long Term Workforce Plan – primarily for more places to train doctors, dentists, and allied health professionals. This is a big ramping up of what OfS do in this area – and discussions are underway with government about how this can be appropriately resourced.

Over in John Blake world (access and participation) there were 36 “wave one” A&P plans in.

For a few years now OfS has been running a hefty backlog of registration requests, and it seems that progress is being made – from 50 cases open in March 2023, there were 40 in August. The new operational guidance appears to be having an effect.

OfS has taken over the external quality assurance of “end-point assessments” from QAA for integrated higher and degree apprenticeships. This has led to the appointment of 40 expert assessors, with more to follow – work will start in the “coming weeks”.

Thirteen providers (a total population of 170,000 students) have thus far confirmed their participation in the pilot harassment and sexual misconduct prevalence survey – field work ended in November 2023.

Things are looking particularly bleak financially – of 254 providers who made submissions of 2022 financial returns, 121 were triaged for more detailed assessment. By 21 September OfS reckoned that 40 of these had no material financial issues, 54 were still under assessments and an alarming 27 had “engagement advised”. An “exempt from publication” paragraph immediately afterwards suggests that some of those got more detailed discussion at the board.

OfS has also been keeping an eye on returns to SLC – there are five audits underway where the regulator is concerned about possible “poor quality data” and “funding paid out inappropriately”. It seems that last month’s NAO example was just the tip of the iceberg.

And as well as redactions concerning its existing referrals (whatever happened to shaming to cause compliance), there’s four new cases referred to National Trading Standards, with further cases potentially on the way. These cover things like the misuse of university title, claims of degree awarding powers where none exist, and essay mills.

Annex A: Strategic Goal reporting and Annex B: OfS media and communications review

As usual, we don’t get to see these.

Industry and Regulators Committee report

Clearly a fun discussion (as we will see later in the minutes) – but the published paper mainly points people to Wonkhe’s marvellous coverage (apparently other people covered the report too).

TEF outcomes

No published papers, but the results are now (mostly) out.

Restricted item

Exempt from publication. The first of an astonishing four of these in this meeting,

Scheme of delegation: free speech functions

Would be interesting to see how the free speech team fits within the rest of OfS. Alas, this has been exempted from publication – legally privileged advice.

Risk report

And Annex A (the detailed register of strategic risks and principal corporate risks). As usual exempt from publication. All we ever get to see is the summary in the OfS annual report.

OfS finance report

An update on the financial position of the Office for Students at the end of period five (31 August 2023). Also exempt from publication. Full financial disclosure is in the annual report and accounts.

Report from the Student Panel

This covers everything up to the last available set of minutes from 2 November. Outside of the meetings (which have focused on TEF, how OfS works with students, freedom of speech, and engagement with ministers) members have been involved in a roundtable discussion on NSS data, had a day out in parliament at the launch of the 2022-25 OfS strategy, and have been both blogging on and discussing harassment and sexual misconduct (in lieu of the actual consultation response ever appearing). All eight remaining panel members have been asked if they would like to stay on for a second year.

Report from the Quality Assessment Committee

A verbal report summarising the outcomes of the recent committee meeting.

Report from the Provider Risk Committee

Exempt from publication – this time due to commercial sensitivities.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

Along with the usual standing items, the 14 September meeting of this committee focused on Data Futures (“the risk in relation to provider readiness to make quality data submissions by the final sign-off deadline of 20 October 2023 has increased”) and people-related risks at OfS (which is probably less interesting than it sounds).

Restricted items (three more)

We don’t get to see any of them.

37th meeting of the OfS board, 12 December 2023

Minutes from the meeting of 28 September 2023

September was the first OfS board meeting for a galaxy of new talent – members cheered to the rafters (probably) for Arif Ahmed (Director of Free Speech and Academic Freedom), Philippa Pickford (Director of Regulation) and Sophie McIvor (Head of Communications), and bid farewell to Martin Oliver (incoming Chief Inspector at Ofsted).

Perhaps a slightly more cautious welcome was offered to the IRC report – the language in the minutes is very much for public consumption, with a commitment to engage constructively with the findings. The board appreciated the initial response from Susan Lapworth, and were keen to emphasise that it should take full responsibility for the formal response and the longer term actions. It’ll be a surprise to no-one, but the student panel reconfiguration will take account of the findings of the IRC report.

On TEF we are still not completely set on “bronze, silver, gold” it seems – the labels for ratings will be considered as part of an overall evaluation of the exercise. At least a part of the appears to have been prefigured – we are told that the board felt “the introduction of the TEF has resulted in providers’ resources being focused on teaching.”

The report from the quality assessment committee dealt with the prioritisation of B3 assessment – as you might expect it is those furthest from the numerical threshold that will get the most attention from the regulator.

The risks from Data Futures must have started to become apparent by this point – a discussion as part of the risk and audit committee has been redacted heavily.

And there’s no clue what those restricted items were, though seasoned OfS Kremlinologists might want to note that Martin Oliver and David Palfreyman declared conflicts of interest.

Chief executive’s report

The numbers keep going up – 11 quality assessments now underway for providers looking to be registered, eight for degree awarding powers of some form (at the time of the meeting one visit had taken place), 36 wave one access and participation plans (with guidance on Wave 2 to follow on 7 December). Forty open registration cases is now down to 37 – and there’s more registration guidance to come. There’s now more than 80 external apprenticeship assessors – action on the first 20 providers kicked off in January 2024.

There’s a curious note that the OfS formal response to the IRC inquiry saw “limited public comment” – it could be because it welcomed everything without actually committing to very much, but that’s not really for us to say.

On freedom of speech it was all about preparing for the consultations that came out at the back end of last year – there’s been some “key stakeholder engagement going on” and OfS has written to providers to ask them about their students’ unions. Board members were told that universities and colleges should take steps to uphold free speech within the law and address reports of an increase in antisemitic incidents (discrimination against or harassment of Jewish students is prohibited by law). Oh, and the Sussex investigation continues (drink).

There were 37 responses to the initial consultation on the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, but plans for a third category of registration have been paused as Advanced Learner Loans will now live on until at least 2027.

In a phrase to make your hair stand on end:

In recent months there has been an increase in the number of providers we have identified as at risk of market exit. Dealing with these cases is taking an increasing proportion of OfS staff time.

We don’t get sight of the detailed Board paper on this issue, much as we would love to see it, or arguably, students deserve to see it.

This time OfS expected to refer to Trading Standards two further cases where it had identified concerns about a provider’s terms and conditions, and three potential new cases had also been identified. Last June OfS said that it intends to publish more information about these cases “at an appropriate time”, as it thought these issues relevant to all universities and colleges and the contracts they make with students – publication was an “important tool” to help all institutions understand how to comply, and to encourage them to do so. The appropriate time has not, however, come yet.

In other looming catastrophes, we were fully into the mess that is Data Futures at this point – with the extension to the deadline announced on 13 November and concerns about the quality of data already visible (apparently there are mitigations in place). OfS understandably wants to be confident that future collections (including the eventual move to in-year collection) can be achieved effectively) – which reads rather like these plans are in doubt until the independent review concludes.

Annex A: OfS communications review was exempt from publication due to copyright.

OfS Public Bodies Review

All the gossip on the latest review of OfS is exempt from publication.

Developing the next OfS strategy

Exempt from publication as policy in development.

Financial sustainability and market exit cases

Exempt from publication due to commercial sensitivities, clearly.

Risk report

Exempt from publication as usual.

Finance report

This was an update on the financial position of the Office for Students at the end of period 7 (31 October 2023). It is, of course, exempt from publication. Full financial disclosure is in the annual report and accounts.

Report from the student panel

This basically covers the November meeting, minutes of which are available online from OfS. We learn that all current members of the panel have successfully been reappointed, and all of them got refresher training (on OfS priorities and remit, and on political impartiality and influence from DfE). The meeting itself looked at the IRC inquiry, OfS approach to student engagement (again) and a bit of horizon scanning on the OfS strategy.

Report from the Quality Assessment Committee

This was a summary of a meeting held on 22 September 2023 – which focused on two things that have now been published: the B3 prioritisation categories for the 2023-24 cycle, and the TEF outcomes.

Report from the Provider Risk Committee

A report summarising the November committee meeting. Exempt from publication due to commercial sensitivities.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

A verbal report summarising the December committee meeting.

Report from the Remuneration and Nominations Committee

A report summarising the November committee meeting. Exempt from publication due to sensitivities.

Two restricted items

Exempt from publication.

One response to “32 nuggets to note in OfS’ September and December board papers

  1. There’s one curious thing in the redactions…
    On the agenda for the September meeting published on line we have this:
    6 Restricted item
    Exempt from publication.

    But in the minutes of the meeting published with the December meeting we get this:

    Item 5 – Protecting public funding
    24. The Head of Provider Governance joined the meeting.
    25. The Director of Regulation updated the board on the OfS’s work with the Student Loans Company (SLC) and the Department for Education (DfE) on activities in relation to the protection of the public funding distributed by the SLC. Exempt from publication.
    26. Exempt from publication.
    27. Exempt from publication.
    28. Exempt from publication.
    29. The Head of Provider Governance left the meeting.

    (ignore that they have two item 5s in the minutes)

    So – we know that this restricted item on the agenda looks like the SLC/franchises issue that emerged from the NAO and got discussed at the Public Accounts Committee. This is in the public domain, it’s put in the minutes, so why the agenda item on the September meeting still ‘restricted’? As DK notes, it used to be rare that an item was so secret that even its title was unknown, but in September there were four of them.

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