Fifteen things we learned from January’s OfS board papers

OfS' January Board papers are out, and Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan have had a read so you don't have to

As we’ve noted on the site before, OfS board papers tend to sneak out at a time when journalists won’t have capacity to go over them in detail – usually 4.00pm on a Friday.

What better time, then, to delve in and pick out the choice gossip from the English regulator? Eyes down, look in.

1. Goodbye Yvonne

The minutes from November note the waving of a formal goodbye to Yvonne Hawkins, Director of Teaching Excellence and Student Experience, who left OfS in December. Yvonne was a stalwart, having worked for 10 years at HEFCE, latterly as a regional advisor, before it morphed into OfS. Her position will not be replaced, as Teaching Excellence and Student Experience is apparently no longer important enough to warrant a director. TEF now sits in the Directorate of Fair Access and Participation, obviously.

2. Taking time to chat

Michael Barber tends to do a verbal report to the board. Here we learn that at November’s meeting he reported he had “spent some time” with the OfS legal team to understand their work and, in particular, the work they were undertaking in preparation for a judicial review hearing in February. Given the overall design of the regulator (and its B3 bear outcomes baselines) is very much Barber’s baby, he’ll have obviously been keen to get an update on the case.

3. Happy days

We also learn that he’s pretty happy about the “interventions” OfS has been making without using its regulatory powers, for example on grade inflation and vice chancellor pay, with “some evidence” this was also beginning to work on unconditional offers. Although he noted that “an important factor in this was getting the tone right”, it’s clearly not a tactic that’s going away.

4. It’s all in the numbers

Since the November meeting there have been three more applications to the OfS register, taking the total to 528. Three more providers have been added to the register, two more have had the formal refusal. The same number of providers (21) are drumming their fingers on the table awaiting a QSR or management and governance review.

5. Sub judice

We’re expecting the judicial review findings from the Bloomsbury College case very shortly, but there’s good news for the regulator in that two other proceedings (from Spurgeon’s College and Barking and Dagenham College) have been withdrawn. Spurgeon’s made a later, successful, application to register – and it looks like Barking will attempt to do so. Barking also had to pay £7,500 of OfS legal costs.

6. E2’ll do

Later in the November meeting, a speaker from the National Cyber Security Centre joined to give a presentation on the NCSC and its work with the higher education sector. It’s notable that someone questioned whether the OfS “should be using the management and governance conditions” of its regulatory powers to ensure providers were doing enough in this area. Condition E2, it seems, is rapidly becoming the ultimate “catch all” for holding providers to account on almost anything that takes a board member’s fancy.

7. Tell me first

Some carefully written up disquiet is evident in the minutes. It was agreed that the board “should have the opportunity to comment” on the OfS annual review before it is published and it was agreed that in future years, “time for a full discussion should be built into the board timetable”. And regardless of whether OfS’ Value for Money strategy “took into account the perceptions of students and graduates”, the strategy should “likewise take into account the views of providers and other stakeholders”. Which is great, because we’re not convinced that right now it takes into account the views of anyone.

8. Burdens

There’s been an away day, and apart from the flipchart sheets and the happy memories, there were some outcomes. There was a need to look at the “overall burden” on providers, and how regulation impacted on “different types of providers” – which will be a little slice of music to many ears. It should also, said the away day, be made “more explicit” that OfS’ focus was on more than just undergraduate students – we’d argue that that needs to manifest in deed as well as just in comms.

9. Big TEF news

The big item on November’s agenda was the TEF review – and there’s significant news here. Departing Director Yvonne Hawkins noted that while three different models of subject level ratings had been trialled, “it does not yet enable robust and credible ratings to be produced at subject level”. Then Chris Millward took to the floor, noting the TEF’s use in “incentivising improvement” through its effect on providers’ reputation. The OfS regulatory framework is designed, he argued, so that TEF can “drive improvement above the baseline quality requirements”, so there is a “strong imperative” for OfS to implement a future approach as soon as possible, and to do so in a way that is “coherent” with the regulatory conditions.

And then the bombshell – TEF will influence behaviour, and thereby incentivise improvement, “from the time when the proposed approach is published for consultation”, and OfS can “supplement this” by publishing metrics at subject level “as they become available”.

10. Big TEF news part 2

Given the evidence they already have on variability between subjects, there is an imperative to “demonstrate subject differences” within the TEF metrics, while recognising the constraints on producing subject level ratings in the next phase. When? The board saw and agreed a timetable, and the discussion took account of the fact that “the timeline for the exercise is determined by the need to create metrics, some of which are based on data that is not yet available”.

In other words – subject TEF (and arguably, any TEF) isn’t really statistically robust enough yet to use for regulatory purposes. But they’re going to publish what they keep calling “experimental” stats anyway (which others will doubtless end up turning into tables and medals), and they’re working hard on refining the metics so they will be robust enough. There’s another paper on TEF due on 14 March, so don’t get too excited about maybe seeing the much-delayed Pearce review any time soon..

11. Righting the wrongs

We looked at the student consumer rights paper that November’s meeting got back in December. In the minutes we learn that the board thought that taking steps to ensure there is a clear and transparent contract in place between students and providers “would not assist students in enforcing their rights if something goes wrong”. We also learn that there is a “possibility that the Competition and Markets Authority will get more powers”.

12. Scanning the horizon

Michael Barber’s horizon scanning panel had met, and interestingly there had been a discussion on subjects and pattern of subject choice. “It is clear”, say the minutes, “that if it is left to the market to shape what courses are put on it will lead to some subjects not being readily available to study, modern foreign languages in particular”. So noting the social and economic value of certain subjects, the panel considered “whether there was a role for the OfS in this area”, although we don’t yet know what that looks like. A subsequent “preserving provision framework” presented to the January board is, as usual, redacted.

13. Looking to the Data Futures

Also exempt from publication in the January batch is a paper updating the board on the HESA Data Futures programme (marked as “commercially sensitive information” which suggests that someone, somewhere, is spending some money). What we do know about Data Futures’ current “paused state”, due as much to OfS’ late changes to the requirements as to any delivery problem, suggests the discussion would have been a classic.

14. Hidden treasures

Another detailing the implementation of OfS’ outcomes-based approach to regulating access and participation was exempt from publication – which looks like it contained detail on how that might interface with OfS’ funding review. Also redacted are papers setting out the outcomes of the 2019 board effectiveness review, and an update to the board on the OfS’s programme and administration funding.

15. Qac qac oops

We do get to see at least part of the report from the Quality Assessment Committee, which oversees the relationship with QAA as the Designated Quality Body (DQB). The committee put off issuing its first confidence judgement until February, and noted that there had been some “issues” relating to the collection of DQB statutory fees from providers, which in this report are firmly pinned to the door of QAA – so much so that “the QAA chief executive has agreed to conduct a lessons learned exercise in relation to fee collection and communications to both providers and the OfS”. Check those letters before you send them!

One response to “Fifteen things we learned from January’s OfS board papers

  1. Correction in relation to point 5 – it’s Bloomsbury Institute, not Bloomsbury College. They are bringing the judicial review you referred to in point 2. Once he outcome is known it is likely to get significant coverage in the HE and wider press – particularly if it does not go in favour of OfS.

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