Christmas comes early as OfS leaves its annual under the tree

OfS' annual review of higher education in England is on the shelves, and David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson have had a read so you don't have to

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

What fresh hell is this?

The Office for Students Annual Review was one of former chair Michael Barber’s wizard wheezes – as paragraph 48 of the regulatory framework has it:

A cornerstone for the OfS’s agenda-setting influence will be its annual report. Here, the OfS will set out the progress that has been made, the challenges that remain, and the future needs and direction of the sector.

The original intention was a kind of “state of the nation” for higher education in England – the kind of set piece statement that paints the near past in a rosy glow, while pointing the way forward with clear-eyed determination backed by the finest bar charts that the analytics directorate could offer.

Is that what we have, or is it more like those disappointing annuals you used to get under the tree from that uncle you never really liked that just used to reuse materials and photos and stories from the previous year? Let’s see.

Chair and chief executive

There’s nothing we haven’t seen before in Lord James Wharton’s introduction, although we’re not sure he’s previously explicitly highlighted that white working-class boys are still “woefully underrepresented”.

The outgoing chief executive gets a “commentary” rather than a foreword. She does play the hits:

There are still too many students on courses where quality is poor, dropout rates are high, and the chances of securing a good degree or finding professional employment are not what students want or expect.

But this familiar line is finessed a little – many providers already offer (in a very Ofsted turn of phrase) “good”, or “outstanding” provision – the intention of course is to leave them well alone – Michelle Donelan’s dream of an army of OfS inspectors actually able to vouch for the quality of this teaching will remain unfulfilled.

For the “minority” that are letting students down (be this entire providers or those “pockets” of poor provision) the message is clear – change, or close. That this is the third year in a row where warnings are issued in the report about these “pockets” without actually defining them is not mentioned.

Once again we get a rehearsal of the idea that anything other than absolute measures risks letting down disadvantaged students – quality and access should be mutually reinforcing. It all falls into the trap of being difficult to disagree with (who, other than Clayton Christensen, would argue for low quality education?) while erasing the structural inequalities that disadvantaged and underserved students carry forward into employment and other graduate destinations.

Regulating universities and colleges

One of the things we used to get in this annual review (and indeed in the board papers) was a statistical run down of regulatory interventions across OfS’ conditions of registration, broken down by Formal Communication (a stern letter to the chair), Enhanced Monitoring (we’re keeping an eye on you sunshine) and the lesser-spotted (and public) Specific Condition of Registration. It always was fairly useless, because we never got a sense of the provider types under the numbers – but it was better than nothing, which is what we have this year.

What we do get is lots of what our teachers at school in our end of term reports used to call “effort” rather than “attainment”. There’s a reminder of various bits of guidance, mood music, asks and requirements – but nothing that’s notable on what came of it all other than lots of surveys showing how unhappy students were.

We might not have any metrics on actual regulation, but we do have some on its “notifications” process. This, you’ll recall, is the way OfS finds out what’s going on in providers outside of its wider stats indicators and to some considerable extent is a replacement for the originally mooted “random sampling” of providers. Here we learn that in the course of 2020-21, OfS received the grand total of:

  • 19 notifications relating to the quality of courses
  • 33 relating to assessment or standards
  • 18 stating that a university or college was not delivering the course “as promised or expected”
  • 10 relating to refunds or waiving of tuition fees

Some of these, of course, could have been in multiple categories. The report says OfS intervened “in a number of these cases,” but do bear in mind that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator said it got 2,604 new complaints in 2020 – that will be a tiny fraction of the complaints received by providers, and their numbers will be a tiny fraction of student concerns.

As such it’s hard to view the “notifications process” as anything other than both a spectacular failure on its own terms, and a hugely inappropriate way of determining where precious regulatory investigatory capacity should be directed.

Quality and standards

It’s been fairly openly acknowledged by the regulator, but we finally get formal confirmation that both the B3 (outcomes baselines conditions of registration) and TEF consultations have slipped back to January 2022 at the earliest. The results of the consultation on the other B (teaching quality) conditions will follow close behind – of note from the other publication notifications is some data and case study driven analysis of the size and shape of English transnational education.

Of perhaps less interest is the continuing fascination with spelling, punctuation, and grammar. For those with short memories of Daily Mail shock-horror headlines, ministers were briefly aghast that some providers were more interested in assessing the actual content of a taught course than correcting grammatical errors – we get this finessed into an expectation that students should mostly be assessed on their proficiency in written English.

Even the usually sensible Nicola Dandridge quotes a survey (actually one of Andreas Schleicher’s media-friendly OECD comparative reports about graduate jobs) that finds that “weak literacy skills” are rife among graduates. Are there more important – and better evidenced – things for the regulator to be getting stuck into? Possibly.

Students’ experience

There was a pandemic over the past couple of years, which heralded what is widely seen as a significant and near-universal detriment to the student experience of higher education. The closest we get to anything that meaningfully addresses this is an admission that OfS has “no specific statutory duty in relation to student accommodation,” some stuff about the mental health website it’s been running with Student Minds (although notably no usage metrics), and half a paragraph on student engagement.

When a wider reckoning of government performance through Covid-19 is finally made, the way that students were ignored and the globally low levels of support that were offered will make for particularly grim reading. There is nothing in this report to suggest that the regulator was engaging all along.

Equality of opportunity

The surprise DfE-mandated revisions of the access and participation plan clearly happened after this section was written, which adds a certain piquancy to the broad sense of satisfaction about the direction of travel two years into the now-defunct five year plans – particularly the citation of the interim evaluation of these plans and the surrounding approach. The regulator notes that there is still work to be done, for example with care leavers, and that the pandemic had an impact on access that has shown weaknesses in unexpected areas.

The regulator received 18 notifications relating to equality issues in 2020-21 – though as above we don’t get any detail as to what these referred to or whether this refers to substantive complaints or just emails based on press coverage.

What we don’t get, surprisingly, is a detailed analysis of the jumps in attainment for disadvantaged groups in 2021. If changes were made to, say, assessment or student support that allowed degree awards to fully recognise the abilities and hard work of disadvantaged groups, it is surely vitally important that we learn more about what happened?

What we do get is a chart and a note that highlights the narrowing of the “good honours” gap between white students and black students. OfS doesn’t mention here that that narrowing might well be a statistical anomaly, and just what happens when everyone does better – given that the gap on the awarding of firsts only between white students and black students actually grew.

Skills and the economy

This section isn’t really about skills and the economy per se, but is more a chapter where the dribs and drabs of activity in government-via-OfS funded projects can go – hence some detail on the £5.6 million it doled out to create more opportunities for graduates who seek highly skilled employment in their home region, the 18 universities that got cash for postgraduate conversion courses in artificial intelligence and data science, Challenge Fund projects where universities identified new approaches to the recruitment and retention of students and its Challenge Competition trialling the distribution of funding to 20 providers for short courses.

What is singled out – highly notably – is a short analysis of its Proceed measure from earlier this year:

At 25 universities and colleges, however, it finds that less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to finish that degree and find professional employment or further study within 15 months of graduation.

As a reminder, at HEPI conference in July, the Secretary of State Gavin Williamson said:

At 25 higher education institutions, fewer than half the students who begin a degree will go on to graduate employment or further study.

As such it’s hard to imagine that that consultation on B3 coming in January will set the baselines – both at provider and subject level – at lower than “Proceed 50 per cent”, isn’t it?

Ghosts of Christmases past

Finally, a quick look at promises in previous annuals that we don’t think ever came to pass.

From 2019:

We will measure our performance by asking students and graduates about their views on value for money” – a poll was last carried out in early 2020, and the webpage telling us about it “will be updated in spring 2021;

We will also be seeking to ensure that student contracts, including their terms and conditions, are fair, transparent and accessible” – no word on this here although its draft strategy consultation mentioned something on consumer protection;

We will be encouraging more universities and colleges to consider how work experience can be incorporated into courses for a wider group of students. We are also encouraging providers to consider how they can redevelop and redesign curriculums to embed the skills which enhance employability” – we don’t think this happened?

We will be conducting a review of university admissions” – we don’t think this has ever been officially killed – the webpage still says that the consultation “is currently paused and will relaunch no earlier than Autumn 2021-22.” That might make sense in the context of DfE running its own – but it did promise it would “consider ways of addressing increasing concerns about some student recruitment practices,” because “students can be offered enticements and inducements which are often not in their best interests, at a time when they may be especially vulnerable.” No sign of any of that – nor the promised dive into the practices of international agents that was in the original terms of reference;

Providers registered with the OfS must demonstrate that the information on their websites and marketing materials is accurate and accessible”. We still await a formal review of how every English provider is in the “top ten”;

OfS will be building on the systems that are now in place, ensuring that students can rely on the quality threshold prescribed by our regulatory framework.” Following a pandemic related stress test, this feels more important than ever.

From 2020:

In 2020-21, we plan to conduct a survey on graduate wellbeing.” We never were clear on whether it meant wellbeing questions in the Graduate Outcomes survey;

Develop further regulatory and funding incentives for mature student participation.” Again, we don’t think this happened?

We have approved a number of [student protection plans] that are significantly below the standard we would expect. The providers concerned are required to resubmit improved plans following the publication of revised guidance by the OfS.” Given new guidance never emerged we think we’re safe to assume that a number of students are studying at providers but are not protected?

Over 14,000 students responded [to our PGT NSS pilot] and we will release our findings in 2020.” It’s a stretch to argue that this represents a “release of the findings”, but in any event we’re getting a new pilot in early 2022;

We will publish a report each year, separate to the OfS annual report, on the value for money of the OfS.” Is this the annual measure of regulatory output against the Lord of the Rings? Again, if we’ve missed this do let us know in the comments!

2 responses to “Christmas comes early as OfS leaves its annual under the tree

  1. Really good article! Interesting about the near tactical lack of acknowledgment towards value for money and student contracts which seems could have offered significant impact onto the movement during covid on refunding student fees. Obviously we’re not yet out of the woods on that feeling- but it seems the movement behind it has died out. The one question I still feel is at what point is student refunds a sealed deal? Is it already dead in the woods? It feels those of the 2020 experience will never be able to get their money back due to tactical ploy from the OFS, AQA, Consumer rights bodies and student finance England. No-one was willing to take responsibility!

  2. “What we don’t get, surprisingly, is a detailed analysis of the jumps in attainment for disadvantaged groups in 2021. If changes were made to, say, assessment or student support that allowed degree awards to fully recognise the abilities and hard work of disadvantaged groups, it is surely vitally important that we learn more about what happened?”

    Indeed we need to be aware of those who put in hard work and give ‘appropriate’ awards for doing so, without devaluing the degree’s awarded to others “Equality of opportunity” needs to mean just that. The current head-long drive for ‘equity of outcome’ does nobody any good, and it can further disadvantage those who’ve put in a lot of extra work only to discover their efforts and degree have been devalued in the “real world ™”..

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