Michael Young is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at University of Sunderland

Annie Willingham is SU President and last year’s Education Officer at the SU, University of Bath

Jonathan Grant is director of Different Angles and a contributing editor of Wonkhe

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Chris Hale is Director of Policy at Universities UK and a member of Wonkhe's Editorial Group.

In the latest in our series on the future of higher education regulation in England, top wonks from across the sector consider OfS’ baseline metrics, its understanding of the student condition and whether it’s truly independent.

Michael Young: What does quality mean when we’re widening access and opportunity?

OfS is achieving what has long eluded all politicians and policy-makers – the abolition of socio-economic inequality. Wealth privilege? Money no longer talks. Social capital? We’re all in it together. “Levelling up’?” Consider yourself straightened out. Just one inequality remains, or rather, one inequit -: between the “quality” of provision of higher education providers. And the OfS may soon come knocking on your door to eliminate that one too. So how has this extraordinary feat been achieved?

“High quality” for OfS originally meant that every student must succeed. Lord Justice Bean described this as “almost impossible for any institution to achieve in practice” in the 2020 Court of Appeal judgement which reversed the denial of registration to the Bloomsbury Institute, originally declared by the OfS as a “landmark victory”. This OfS post, which with startling bad taste had rejoiced at the probable closure of a viable organisation and the consequent mass redundancies, has since been deleted from their website.

So now the position is that only a certain minimum proportion must succeed. Students are not real people with dreams and ambitions, complex lives and challenges to overcome and/or privileges to milk. They are all the same, measured by the same reductive and de-humanising OfS definitions of “success”. All disadvantage, so obviously evident at GCSE level, is magically wiped away.

Can providers make a difference? Certainly, and we do every day. Anyone involved in teaching or support services knows how far their institution invests in real-life impact – dedicated staff who are passionate about their students’ success, targeted bursaries, hardship funds, mental health and wellbeing services, personal academic tutoring, embedded employability support, collaboration with students’ unions.

I know from our own university the truly transformative, life-changing impact of degree-level study and it’s no clearer than among those students who, with our help, have triumphed over adversity to realise ambitions well beyond their expectations. But aiming high always carries a risk and not every student succeeds, despite our best efforts.

That’s the kind of sensitivity to risk that I’d like to see OfS demonstrating an understanding of.

Annie Willingham: OfS needs to be much better at understanding students

Right now, when it comes to things that matter to them, it is hard for students to identify who regulates what. A mixture of the university itself (often with different answers in different departments), OfS, QAA, the OIA and the CMA simply allows everyone to nod along and agree that yes that is a serious issue, but no it’s probably not them that can act on it.

Whoever or “whatever” is regulating the “market” for higher education should be doing so in a meaningful, authentic, and impactful way – using both qualitative and quantitative data. Of course there’s a need for metrics and performance indicators – but what should hold more weight is the student engagement conducted through student reps or trained student auditors. It’s no good counting things unless we understand the experiences that lead to those numbers.

An authentic conversation between students / peer to peer would enable discussions around issues on freedom of speech, student wellbeing, value for money without a hierarchy figure auditing the work institutions have done – working towards a framing of the conversation around “how can you demonstrate student opinion on this?” rather than universal “baseline” standards which will always be contested.

If we listen to what students tell us, we’d know that any regulator should focus on the “whole” student experience; the quality and consistency of the delivery from their university; and ways to empower students as individuals and as collectives to be assertive partners. Forget “engaging” with them – the more power that OfS gives students, the more good will happen for them locally.

Jonathan Grant: A failure of independence, not regulation

You regulate a market when it fails. It may fail on price as there is not enough competition, it may fail on quality as unscrupulous providers cut corners, but the point is there is failure. This need not be a bad thing. “Best before dates” stop us from getting food poisoning, price caps on gas aim to keep it affordable.The fact that higher education in England has a regulator is an acknowledgment of that market failure – without it, it is argued, the quality of teaching would not meet assured standards – the value of a degree would be unknown to both students and prospective employers, and the cost of tuition would be dictated by the free market.

An interesting thought experiment is to consider what an unregulated market would look like. As I suggest in the New Power University, the monopolistic right to accredit degrees under the permission of the regulator is very “old power”. It is not inconceivable that new providers offer unaccredited degrees especially if they have the brand value to convince students and employers of their worth Indeed, certificates offered by Microsoft may carry similar value as degrees in the IT industry.

But such an experiment may be too farfetched for today’s debate on the role of OfS. Perhaps more relevant is the reach – or overreach – of the regulator. Very few would dispute its role in quality assurance, access and indeed assessing value for money (however difficult that is). What feels more challengeable is its role in debates on spelling and freedom of speech. Neither are consequences of market failure but practices that a market – regulated or not – should be able to adjust to. Just as I may prefer a Big Mac over a Whopper knowing that both are safe to eat thanks to the Food Standards Agency, students (and indeed staff) can choose whether to go to an institution that has a reputation for good or bad spelling or is a strong advocate (or not) for freedom of expression.

It may be unfair to blame OfS for overreach given both are issues that have been politicised by the government, influencing the regulator to intervene. And that is perhaps the core problem of the current regulatory framework in England: OfS is not an “independent regulator” from government (as its website claims). And until it either asserts that independence or is granted it by government, it is trapped in an unenvious position that does the sector, and more importantly, students a disservice.

Paul Greatrix: Excessive regulation makes things worse for students

I’ve written before about the problems of excessive regulation including the sadly as yet unadopted idea of a “regulation staycation”. All governments talk about reducing bureaucracy and red tape, usually with frequent references to bonfires – it’s a long time since we saw anything more than smouldering kindling in higher education but we desperately do need to see some flames. Soon.

First, we need a new HE Regulatory Review Body which will assess the entire regulatory landscape, its purpose and cost, and come up with a new, genuinely risk-based model. Either that or a Tickell-style intervention, analogous to the research bureaucracy review, which will aim to cut significantly the regulatory burden (by 50% should be a reasonable target).

Either way, the regulatory regime needs a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis and a specific higher education regulatory impact analysis tool which assesses costs and necessity of each new and current piece of regulation. And as part of this we need to define a concept of “justifiable” regulation. No-one can seriously argue there should be none but we have to ask in each case can the regulation be justified in terms of its cost, its benefit for students and its impact on the core activity of education. This would lead us much more directly to genuine risk-based regulation.

Something had better change. We do need some meaningful action to reverse this continuing growth in costly regulation, particularly at a time when further financial constraints on universities look inevitable. Excessive regulation means more cost and diversion from core higher education activities and endangers the very things it aims to protect. We need to reverse the tide now.

Christopher Hale: Five ways to improve OfS in its next phase

OfS was established in the interests of students, but it feels like priorities are driven more by the politics of the day. I’m not so naïve to think OfS operates in a political vacuum (and DfE is well within its right to ask things of OfS) but there is room to grow as an independent regulator. This should involve turning up the volume on how students are shaping the OfS agenda and how they are regulating in the interests of students rather than government.

The OfS bureaucracy problem has been helpfully recognised. Can more be done? Part of the challenge sits with government, which asks a lot of OfS, adding to cost and requirements and leaving OfS lacking focus. The myriad of registration conditions has also become increasingly complex, difficult to understand and is constantly changing. Focus and streamlining should be watchwords for this next phase.

OfS could improve effectiveness with less stick and more carrot. The recent short course trial is a great example of supporting innovation and transformation aligned with policy goals and the student interest. Volumes of registration conditions have their place but can’t alone achieve lasting outcomes.

And OfS could be more effective through better understanding those it regulatees – visiting providers, talking to students and those teaching them. Above all, being interested in (and being seen to be interested in) higher education will help.

One response to “Enabling social mobility means taking risks

  1. “Above all, being interested in (and being seen to be interested in) higher education will help.” I see that Christopher Hale is taking a very optimistic line. There’s no evidence that OfS is interested in higher education at all. Or has any understanding of it. Or, indeed, any interest in understanding it. It’s hugely depressing, and also hugely damaging.

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