Forty things we found out from OfS’ December and February board papers

The Office for Students Easter board papers bunny has been, with two lots of paperwork to read. Jim Dickinson goes hunting for golden eggs so you don't have to

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s a post-Easter double drop for OfS board papers, covering the meetings held in December and February.

Having announced ages ago that it was moving into a new gear on regulation, this time around we mainly get to watch in real time the ever-lengthening timescales for that activity – with free speech, B3 outcomes, business and management, computing courses and grade inflation probes all experiencing copious amounts of slippage.

8 December 2022

Approval of minutes from 30 September 2022 board meeting

First we learn of what transpired at the September meeting, which for some reason was held both online and in-person at 15 Fetter Lane in London. Has the regulator moved from its London home on Furnival Street? Was there a double booking? Who knows.

This being the first meeting since Susan Lapworth was sworn in as CEO, the new boss was welcomed and congratulated on getting the gig by Chair James Wharton – who also noted that recruitment was underway to recruit a new student member to replace Martha Longdon, who couldn’t make it this time. In other soon to be departed news, he also reported on a meeting with Kit Malthouse in his new role as Secretary of State for Education.

In the CEO report section (the papers for which we looked at back in November), Susan Lapworth confirmed that Jisc had been appointed as the Designated Data Body (DDB) (subject to completion of the merger with HESA) and noted that the B3 “minimum expectations for student outcomes” thresholds has been published that day – OfS expected to undertake assessments of compliance for around 20 providers, the results of which (or even names of which) have still not been made public.

One issue that Lapworth was keen to stress here was the use by providers of “out of date” TEF ratings in their marketing materials, contrary to the regulator’s guidance issued in June 2021. It was noted that advertising historical TEF awards “could be misleading to the public” and that this raised questions about whether such advertising “complies with the Advertising Standards Authority’s code”, although it’s not clear who was doing this, and whether OfS had emailed to grass them up.

Times are tightening out in provider-land as savings from the pandemic dry up, so the discussion on the financial risks they are facing was interesting – manifesting as a “register of system-wide financial sustainability risks” that Director of Resources and Finance Nolan Smith was keen to run by the board. The “increasingly volatile” financial environment, UK tuition fees and student recruitment, international student recruitment, investment in research and innovation, capital expenditure and providers’ ability to borrow were all on the eventual list of big themes:

a. Rising costs (energy costs, and salary and pension costs)

b. Potential longer-term borrowing difficulties arising from increases in interest rates, linked to inflation.

c. The differential experience of providers (size, subject mix and specialisms, student intake mix, and location).

d. The differing capacity of individual providers to identify and manage financial risk.

e. The differential experience of student groups and the equality impact of providers’ decisions in response to financial pressure.

f. Costs arising from maintaining and investing in providers’ estate.

g. Future investment in research and innovation including the extent of the replacement for EU Horizon funding.

h. Reliance on international student fees and the impact of movement in currency markets, immigration policies or unexpected geo-political events.

i. And one other, mysteriously marked “exempt from publication.”

The board concluded by agreeing the importance of re-enforcing the responsibilities of members of providers’ governing bodies, particularly in relation to financial matters and pro-active planning for financial shocks, and agreed to review at its forthcoming planning event OfS’s approach to monitoring financial sustainability of registered providers. The forthcoming annual look at provider financial sustainability should be fun.

Normally entire papers and discussion points are redacted, and from time to time sentences or bullet points – but in the discussion on QAA remitting its role as the Designated Quality Body (DQB), we get a fun game of Blankety Blank as follows:

The board was open, in principle, to working with a new DQB. However, it would not wish to do so in practice unless it could be confident that [exempt from publication] any new DQB would represent a more efficient and effective solution than the OfS performing the assessment functions itself.

The board supported the set of principles set out in the paper to underpin consideration of future longer-term arrangements, and noted that the assessment functions would need to continue to be delivered in-house in the medium term – with “considerable resource implications”.

Elsewhere Director for Fair Access and Participation John Blake gave a presentation on what we’ve now seen, the Head of Strategy and Evaluation introduced a paper that was formerly called “enforcement strategy” but was now called “intervention strategy” on the basis that OfS intervenes as well as enforces, and the Data Futures programme was reported as “six months’ away from going live”. Did we miss the party on March 30th?

Chief executive’s report

Back to the substantive papers for the December meeting, and Susan Lapwoth’s report opened with the now traditional announcement of a new ministerial team. Picking up those boots on the ground, we learn here that its programme of investigations into the quality of business and management courses was progressing, and assessment teams had undertaken initial visits at seven of the eight providers under investigation – with OfS expecting the first assessment reports to be available in February 2023. Wonder what went wrong?

As well as the business and management trawl, there was the matter of those 20 providers below the B3 thresholds – the rather less ambitious jam-tomorrow wording this time of “we will select and engage with up to 20 registered providers in relation to our ongoing monitoring of condition B3 this year” suggests that quality inspections were not zipping along at the pace OfS might have liked.

On the QAA thing, OfS had compiled its provisional triennial report on the DQB which had been shared with the agency in April 2022 – QAA had evidently responded and some changes were made before submitting it (and a summary) to the Secretary of State in November 2022. Us mere mortals haven’t seen the full report yet (just a summary), but the carefully implied line here remains that QAA jumped before it was pushed.

We also get some reporting on the throwing of QAA and its convening of subject-benchmark statements under the bus as follows:

There has been substantial reporting of the QAA’s subject benchmark statements, including on the front page of the Daily Mail. There was also coverage in The Times, Daily Telegraph and LBC. The media reports included the OfS’s response to this story that made it clear that this guidance is unrelated to the work the QAA carries out as designated quality body. We were also clear that we do not expect or require providers to adopt this QAA guidance and, if they choose to do so, they must also continue to meet OfS requirements, including in relation to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

There was also nothing new on freedom of speech either, save for the now laughable holding statement on the investigation it opened into Sussex and Stock in October 2021 as follows:

We continue to consider matters connected to freedom of speech and academic freedom at the University of Sussex.

You might remember that mysterious blogpost that OfS published on fraud back in October – that gets a reference here, although the real reason for this bit of subtweeting is left hanging as “Exempt from publication”. There’s also reference to that announcement we got in November of a new agreement with National Trading Standards (NTS), although the questions to which that partnership was the answer are also not published here.

Oh – and Data Futures was “on track” for April 2023. More on that later.

Communicating our strategy

We don’t get to see most of what’s discussed these days, but it wouldn’t really be a good look to redact a paper on strategic comms – so we do have a cover paper discussing the implications of the report on provider engagement which we’ve since seen.

This tells us that coming “early” in 2023 were the following things – which we’re not sure have actually started yet, but we’d be happy to be corrected:

  • Regular online sessions for providers, with a different policy or regulatory theme each month and the opportunity to ask questions of the chief executive and other directors.
  • Roundtables for senior staff to meet with vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors and other accountable officers, to help address concerns and misunderstandings.
  • Regular provider visits for senior staff with opportunities for interested board members where appropriate.
  • A clearer approach to consultations, with clear executive summaries and consultation periods that, where possible and appropriate, provide further time for responses, recognising that some simpler consultations may need to be shorter.
  • Further improvements to the website drawing on new user research, including a digital version of the regulatory framework, more information about the role of OfS including an organogram, and easy access to good practice examples.
  • Better promotion of existing contact routes for providers including reminding providers of how to reach their contact through our dedicated regulation line.

Restricted item

This is new. As the number of published papers has slowly dwindled, we at least would be told what the (often vague) subject of the redacted item was – this time we have an item merely marked “restricted item” that is “exempt from publication – locally sensitive information.” That does make it hard to challenge and therefore accept that redaction decision.

Access and participation reforms – preliminary views from consultation

There was a presentation to the board outlining the emerging themes from the recent consultation on a new approach to regulating equality of opportunity. No slide deck or summary are published.

Restricted item

Another one with no subject and marked “Exempt from publication – locally sensitive information.” Not a trend we’re a fan of.

Finance report

As usual, the update to the board on OfS’s programme and administration funding is also exempt from publication. Full financial disclosure will be made in OfS’ annual report and accounts.

Student panel update

The panel had met to chat harassment and sexual misconduct, OfS external communications, the regulator’s approach to market exit and the impact on students of the rising cost of living. Sadly as usually there’s no clear picture on whether anyone else in OfS was listening, and if so what they did about it – other than a record of the cost of living chat ending up appended to that insight brief that appeared recently.

Notably OfS’ actual approach to the cost of living crisis wasn’t an actual item at either of the meetings here.

Report from the Provider Risk Committee

There was a report to the board summarising the outcomes of recent Provider Risk Committee meetings. It was naturally exempt from publication on the basis that it contained legally privileged information.

Oral report from the Risk and Audit Committee

There was an oral report to the board summarising the outcomes of the Risk and Audit Committee meeting held on 7 December 2022.

Report from the Remuneration and Nominations Committee

There was a report to the board summarising the outcomes of the committee’s most recent meeting held on 17 November 2022. This was also exempt from publication – relevant remuneration information was to be made available in OfS’ annual report and accounts.

Restricted item

Another one of these! The plot thickens.

3 February 2023

Approval of minutes from 8 December 2022 meeting

Most of this is covered above – although other nuggets include:

  • James Wharton reported on his meeting with Gillian Keegan in her new role as Secretary of State for Education, and another with Claire Coutinho, the DfE Minister leading on the Free Speech bill. He’d also been out and about around the sector by meeting with Anthony Freeling, Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.
  • Given that above we learned that OfS’ new word for “enforcement” is now “intervention”, there may be some who are disturbed to learn that it was important for OfS to “avoid appearing to intervene in the current round of industrial action affecting parts of the higher education sector.” OfS had updated and reissued its guidance for providers, and it was noted that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education had also issued guidance on refunding students who may have missed teaching as a result of industrial action. Students (and many staff) may take a different view on the continued apparent absence of intervention, or indeed enforcement, over lost learning opportunities and widespread disruption.

Chief executive’s report

The boots on the ground saga continues – this time we learn that OfS’ programme of investigations into the quality of business and management courses “continues” with two onsite visits due to have taken place by early March. The follow-on investigations relating to computing courses are reported here as happening at just three providers, with visits planned to conclude by mid-April.

Why all the delays? It says here that Susan Lapworth was expecting that arrangements for this enforcement, sorry intervention activity could be affected by industrial action, over which you’ll recall that it was important for OfS not to appear to intervene.

Oh, and those three grade inflation investigations were progressing as “desk-based” affairs, and 18 providers had been selected for B3 (student outcomes) investigations – but these hadn’t started because but OfS was delaying requesting information from providers until after the TEF submission date to spread out the burden on the selected providers. How kind!

What’s that you say? Any news on Sussex? All together now:

We continue to consider matters connected to freedom of speech and academic freedom at the University of Sussex.

Delivering quality assessment functions from 1 April 2023

An update to the board on plans for delivering assessments relating to quality and standards and degree awarding powers from April 2023 is redacted. Instead we are directed to briefing notes setting out OfS’s approach to regulating quality and standards and the statutory framework for quality and standards.

Freedom of speech and academic freedom

There was an update to the board on the progress of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill through Parliament and the key implications for OfS. Naturally this is exempt from publication using the “policy in development” reason.

Finance report

The board got an update on OfS’s programme and administration funding.

We can’t see it – but full financial disclosure will be made in OfS’ annual report and accounts.

Report from the Provider Risk Committee

There was a report to the board summarising the outcomes of recent Provider Risk Committee meetings. Legally privileged, so not published.

Report from the Quality Assessment Committee

There was a report to the board summarising the outcomes of the Quality Assurance Committee meeting held on 12 December 2022. There’s no surprises in there.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

And there was also a report to the Board summarising the outcomes of the Risk and Audit Committee meeting held on 7 December 2022. Again there was nothing we didn’t already know.

Update from the student panel

There was another update to the board on the work of the student panel, which this time around had discussed designing and delivering student support to meet the needs of students, OfS’ research regarding the cost of living, and highlights from the “regulatory learning training programme” that OfS staff were undertaking.

DfE-appointed Student Support Champion Nottingham Trent VC Edward Peck himself facilitated the student support chat, which apparently noted that “most” providers host a “welfare week” – which is news to us and, presumably, most providers.

Weirdly, the research that we previously learned that OfS was commissioning on consumer protection law (that the panel had previously been shaping the design on) isn’t mentioned here, or last time, at all.

One response to “Forty things we found out from OfS’ December and February board papers

  1. The mystery of one of the “Restricted Items” in the December meeting is – perhaps in error – solved in the February minutes.

    Item 7.1 was a “paper on the approach the OfS is taking to intelligence about registered providers that may suggest inappropriate or fraudulent use of the student finance system”

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