This article is more than 1 year old

Consultations are not just a token opportunity for the sector to air views

Universities UK's Charlotte Snelling was less than impressed with the way OfS managed the NSS consultation
This article is more than 1 year old

Charlotte Snelling is a Policy Manager at Universities UK.

Let me take you back to July.

After another long year of supporting students through the continued disruption of Covid lockdowns and ahead of the inevitably busy results day and clearing period, colleagues were enjoying a moment of respite.

As the heatwave took hold, it was time to take a moment, clear the inboxes, and prepare for the year ahead.

Following submissions to the Office for Students’ supplementary consultation only a month before, surely this was a moment in which the focus could finally return to planned activities.

Not so fast

Enter: The NSS consultation.

On 28 July, the OfS launched its sixth consultation of 2022 (eighth if you include the consultations on OfS strategy and Data Futures). The UK’s funders and regulators were now seeking views on proposals for updating the National Student Survey. On its own, this is no bad thing.

As reported by the OfS’s phase 1 review published in 2021, the NSS is an important tool for collecting the views of students. It is the only census style survey of final year undergraduates that covers the entirety of the UK. Universities value the contribution it makes to their work to improve and enhance teaching, learning and student experience.

But we all know that to remain useful and relevant, surveys need to be reviewed and updated and the NSS was never perfect. Changes were needed and talking to the principal users of the NSS was the right thing to do.

A shorter consultation

Blissfully, this consultation was a mere 49 pages, rather than the 800 page monsters we have become used to. But, with a deadline of 1 September, the sector had only a month to respond. However, it was not just any old month. With the consultation relating to a student survey and the month in question being August, the timing raised more than one eyebrow.

Still the sector rallied – and over 250 responses were submitted. People, organisations, and universities wanted to share their views. However, fast forward to today’s response and you are hard pressed to find a single area in which the views of the sector have had any impact on the OfS’s intentions.

One of the most startling examples is where the regulator says, about the summative question on student satisfaction, that

[…] around a tenth of comments supported the proposal to remove the question in England.

This clever use of wording attempts to avoid saying what even the most basic maths can tell you, that 90 per cent of respondents disagreed with the proposal.

The OfS’s response? The proposed change will go ahead and the question will be removed from the NSS.

Only around half of respondents agreed with the suggested inclusion of a question on mental wellbeing – but yet again, the proposed change will go ahead and the question will be added to the NSS.

Similar moments

This is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of reaction. On the TEF, despite two-thirds of respondents disagreeing with maintaining gold/silver/bronze ratings and three-quarters of respondents disagreeing with the introduction of ‘requires improvement’ as a fourth rating category, the OfS felt there was no need to amend these proposals.

Regulators and regulated sectors will not always agree. There may be legitimate reasons why the feedback received during a consultation cannot be fully acted on. However, if the view is that it cannot be acted on at all, it begs the question as to why there was a consultation in the first place.

The Regulators’ Code, states that

Regulators should have mechanisms in place to engage those they regulate, citizens and others to offer views and contribute to the development of their policies and service standards.

The crucial word here is “contribute”.

The OfS cannot continue to see consultations as a token opportunity for the sector to air their views. The burden associated with responding – all with huge amounts of content and the shortest of deadlines – is significant. All the time that universities are spending responding to consultations is time lost from developing their support for students and enhancing teaching and learning.

There is a further risk that if the OfS does not listen to the sector, changes will be made without regard for potential pitfalls. It is in the interests of everyone – the sector, students, and the OfS itself – for regulation to be good regulation. This means listening to the people who are closest to the issue.

Meanwhile, I wonder how everyone’s doing on their consultation response to the new access and participation plans…

12 responses to “Consultations are not just a token opportunity for the sector to air views

  1. I’m utterly unconvinced that OfS (Government) remotely care what the sector thinks. The NSS and TEF consultations were not consultations at all. So much so in fact that there is hardly any difference between the consultation documentation and the final guidance despite the “listening” narrative. Regardless of sector-wide feedback asking for changes to their approach, they have been ignored repeatedly. APP will be the same.

    Ultimately the OfS is not being run by people who understand the sector or education and its nuances. A cursory glance the workshops and consultation meetings reveals the lack of knowledge in the OfS advisory teams.

    Bring back QAA. It was much better.

  2. Sadly I fear the above comment is totally correct – the OFS is increasingly looking a seriously questionable organisation in terms of compliance with basic principles of good governance and regulation.

    Even regulators with considerably sharper teeth and history of using them seem to make more attempts to genuinely listen to the their regulated communities and adapt their approach accordingly – indeed they recognise that without that involvement then their regulatory interventions and approach will always be sub-optimal – and the absence of real sector expertise is notable.

  3. I commented on David Kernohan’s article. Can they not be brought to book for maladministration?

    1. Realistically it’s unlikely. Theoretically you could perhaps look at a judicial review process / but I doubt anyone would do that over this.

      Sector representative bodies should, via articles like this publicly, and in their other channels in private, be raising their concerns to the OFS directly and to DFE.

      Universities themselves should also be using their own networks into government and the lords to start raising the issue that the OFS is a body fast losing the confidence of those it regulates.

      When you add up the shambles that there has been across a wide range of areas – there comes a point where you have to observe that this is not a new regulator finding it’s feet, it’s a regulator with fundamental problems.

  4. My institution responds to a lot of OfS consultations, and I spend a lot of my time carefully crafting content for those responses. It is UTTERLY POINTLESS and demoralising when you know that the response to the consultation will be “Here is what the sector said. Here is why the sector is wrong. Therefore, we will carry on doing what we were going to do anyway”. The whole point of a consultation should be to listen to and adapt plans based on the response and to seek a better way forward, not to tick the ‘have you consulted?’ regulatory box.

    1. Indeed. Imagine a university consulting its student body as part of a curriculum review, giving them the opportunity to help co-create their educational experience, and then completely ignoring all of the responses and doing what they damn well please anyway. They would rightly be hauled over the coals for it.

  5. Agree that APP consultation will be the same. They don’t have a clue what they are doing and don’t understand our sector. You want to raise pre-16 attainment? How about a joined up DfE policy? How about listening to schools? Asking them what they need (can guarantee it isn’t the interfering of the local Uni)? How about investing in schools with adequate buildings and facilities, mental health support and SEN support and EAL support? How about not pushing a vanity driven, tokenistic policy which will have zero real impact onto a sector with enough of its own challenges to address? But we know this is a done deal so what is the point in objecting.

  6. it isn’t just the consultations which are utterly opaque. Try joining a OfS webinar where you are unable to see/interact with the other ‘participants’, you cannot see/hear the questions raised by others and only selected questions (which are never the tricky ones) merit any kind of weak response. I have increasingly less faith in OfS’ ability, experience, capacity to work with those it regulates. It is increasingly becoming hermetically sealed from reality and from the lives of students it purports to put first. On top of all that, it is a criminally expensive operation which is as far from value for money as Suella Braverman is from a Nobel Peace Prize.

    1. Could not agree more! Already grinding my teeth at the thought of attending another webinar tomorrow.

  7. Great article, Charlotte. Just imagine if you applied the logic of their descriptive stats in any submissions. The OfS approach to consultation certainly ‘Requires Improvement’

  8. The challenge that has been made in previous consultations has been framed as trying to convince OfS of better alternatives in line with their policy objectives. Which is tricky when there isn’t great transparency about the evidence informing policy proposals to individuals or collectives responding to these things, and trickier when the proposals wouldn’t be put forward if they weren’t believed to conform to policy objectives in the first place.

  9. I can only agree with my colleagues about these ‘un-consultations’, the fatigue and waste of time involved, and the sense that the sector rarely gets to ‘contribute’ effectively to the shaping of policy, despite OfS claims. Most, on NSS, I lament the unthinking destruction of one of the best longitudinal data sets about developments in teaching and learning that we have. Changes to the NSS now will make it harder for students and other stakeholders to compare across the devolved sectors, and also to see where real effort has been expended throughout the sector, and where genuine improvement has been achieved by a wide range of staff in a variety of institutions. (Please note these are personal views).

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