Another hole in the regulatory bucket

The key regulatory tool for English higher education will be the OfS’s register of providers. The conditions that have to be met and maintained will be the core means for keeping HE providers in line. Institutions have to be on the register to be called a university, award degrees, have their UK/EU students get loans and international students be eligible for visas.

Writing on the site *Research journalist Fiona McIntyre noted that OfS had missed its latest deadline for getting the majority providers on the register by the end of October. Of the 327 that had applied, only 182 had been approved, six with conditions. That leaves 145 to go, by my reckoning 10 of which are universities. I’m interested in conditions; the latest batch includes two universities that have to demonstrate better plans in B3, concerning student persistence and outcomes.

Gone missing

At the consultation stage it was thought that in 2018-19 there would be 88 providers in the approved category and 390 in the approved fee-cap category (split 58 alternative providers, 204 further education colleges and 125 HE institutions). At that point I was particularly worried about the providers missing from the approved categories – some being allowed into the dubious “registered basic” category (which was thankfully dropped).

OfS has a spreadsheet of all those providers that were regulated either by HEFCE or had specific course designation from DfE. There were 807 providers on that list. There’s also the matter of approval for tier 4 licences from the Home Office. There were HE providers on that register that were running courses without funding but which needed visas for their students. These included offshore campuses of international universities and UK-based providers. There’s no easy way to count how many of those holding tier 4 (general) licences were offering HE programmes.

So, if last year there were at least 807 providers under regulation, there’s an issue with only 327 applying to OfS. That’s 151 fewer than DfE projected would join. What’s happened to the other 480 – at least 60% of the HE providers in England last year?

Franchised HE

My hypothesis is that a lot of the provision has moved towards franchising. One of the striking things about the OfS framework is the way it makes a clear distinction between “validation” and “franchise”. In OfS terms, validation is when a provider’s students (let’s call it provider A) gets the award of a different provider (provider B); franchise arrangements are where provider A teaches the students of provider B. In validation, provider A needs to be OfS approved for students to get fee or maintenance loans of visas. But in franchise deals, provider A is all but invisible to OfS.

Let’s imagine a case study. There’s a provider called Alpha College which operates multiple degree programmes franchised from Beta University. There’s not much publicly available information about Alpha College but its courses are on Unistats. Some of the courses seem to be having a rocky time, but that happens. The data for some show a very low continuation rate, data on others shows low satisfaction linked to course management failings.

Alpha beta gaga

As a franchise, students apply through UCAS to Beta University, who are regulated accordingly. However, it’s hard to see how OfS will bring that to bear. There’s reference to Alpha College in Beta University’s access and participation plan, but not the detail that covers students at the university. Unistats data can be complex for small alternative providers and doesn’t exist yet for postgraduate courses at all. The student protection plan at Beta might not be as concrete about students at Alpha.

These generate problems for OfS. It doesn’t have a direct relationship with Alpha College, so any issues have to be dealt with as a condition of registration for Beta. Alpha will have some QAA interactions, depending on its status, which will feed information in. Indirect oversight of colleges offering higher national diplomas by Edexcel is one of the reasons that we have the OfS. It would be an unintended consequence of the new framework if OfS now has less oversight than before.

Weirdly, following the precedent set by UA92, DfE can allow Alpha to be renamed Alpha University Campus and yet OfS have no direct oversight of something the local press will insist on calling a university thereafter.

Worse may follow. Remember that Jo Johnson accused universities of acting like bouncers, not letting colleges in to be the competition? The ability to use franchise with more limited oversight by OfS might allow new providers into the system, but now all the risk falls on the university. A risk-averse university may now be more reluctant to franchise to a provider which might trigger a condition of approval, a QAA HE review or some other sanction. This might be the worst unintended consequence; a reluctance to support new providers.

Office for (some) Students

The forward schedule for OfS board meetings has validation on agendas for the next two meetings, so it’s a fair assumption that as well as the issue of how OfS will discharge its own validation powers, the issue of the number of providers operating under franchise will be getting attention. But with OfS stressing its role in protecting students, those being taught at providers not on the register might be surprised how little OfS offers them.

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