Fourteen things we spotted in July’s OfS board papers

For the second time this month, we read the OfS board papers so you don't have to

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

After a long wait for the May papers the July OfS board meeting materials have been turned round in record time (we’d be happy to buy the board clerk a pint), meaning that we’re back here twice in the same month.

Sadly while we applaud the efforts to get these things out quicker, there’s still a dearth of available papers – just five substantive ones this time – and a lot of redaction within the documents. But in terms of a public record of that tense afternoon on Microsoft Teams, this is what we have

Minutes from 26 May 2022 board meeting

It’s not so long ago that we went through the papers, so do the minutes shed any further light?

Well, we didn’t know this meeting happened by video conference, so that’s a thing. And the board was sadly depleted on that day given that the undoubted higher education regulatory expertise of Rachel Houchen (who coincidentally is married to the chair’s best mate) was unavailable. On the matter of the Chair himself (and his Hungary-related escapades) we get a note of the following boilerplate apology in the Chair’s welcome:

The chair commented on recent press reports regarding his appearance at the recent US Republican Party CPAC conference in Hungary. He had provided a video to the conference days before the event in his position as a Conservative peer. He was not aware that an individual who has expressed racist and antisemitic views was also speaking at the event. Immediately following the press reports, the chair met the Union of Jewish Students to personally reassure them and address their concerns. That meeting had been extremely positive. He advised the board that both he personally and the OfS are committed to tackling racism and intolerance and are committed to supporting free speech and academic freedom.”

The entire discussion on KPMs, which likely included such timeless classics as “should we, perhaps, align our KPMs with the national audit office and public accounts committee requirements?” and “how about we follow the regulator’s code for a change?” has been redacted.

It does look like there was a decent discussion on the financial stability of smaller providers – OfS is well aware for the approaching crunch period, and have noted a variability in financial strength, a tendency to hold significant cash reserves in difficult and uncertain times, and the small (or even negative) margins that smaller providers work with. The board noted (perhaps with an eye on energy prices?) that action needs to be taken now to manage large increases in costs, and that demand internationally was unstable.

Interim chief executive’s report

Susan Lapworth’s update is now mapped to the OfS strategy, suggesting that we are looking at updates on the three strands and single cross-cutting theme from here on in. It seems sensible to tie things back to the overall aims of the organisation in this kind of report, not least because it helps with claims of transparency when the auditors come knocking.

Kicking off with quality and standards, as you’d expect the excitement is all around those eight DfE funded business and management provision investigations – here clarified to cover concerns around compliance with conditions B1 (academic experience), B2 (resources, support, student engagement), and B4 (assessment and awards). Again the providers under scrutiny are not named (though the regulator “may wish to do so in due course” – and we do get the caveat that selection for investigation is not a presumption of guilt.

On degree attainment the May analysis, which showed an increase in “unmerited” higher grades is flagged, and board members’ attention is drawn to the new B4 condition highlighting OfS’ continued concern. Chillingly, the last paragraph of this section is redacted – so it is hard not to suspect that some kind of regulatory action (perhaps linked to those three desk reviews that are still in progress) is on the way.

Under “equality of opportunity” we find some information on the “world-leading” specialist provision competition. According to this update, providers will have heard whether they are successful or not back in July – and the consultation that popped up in July on the funding method is flagged. We’re led to believe that the announcement of allocations will be confirmed (alongside, we assume, the consultation outcomes) later this month, with awards backdated to August. Of course, everything has been pushed back after the period of national mourning so we can expect some slippage here.

Moving on to “enabling regulation” and we see the (redacted) items later in this meeting on the ALRA market exit and on the approach to monitoring provider sustainability flagged as a direct response to the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee findings. The rest of this section has more of a conference report vibe – the (then) interim Chief Executive notes conversations with providers at summer events about burden and regulatory independence. There’s been at least one close engagement with a provider in which OfS – in a dynamic and innovative rethinking of institutional autonomy – got down and dirty with internal governance arrangements, resulting in a breath of fresh summer air through the scheme of delegation.

The news on “efficient and effective regulation” is a bitty list of activity – we learn that 23 brave souls responded to the consultation on Jisc taking on the HESA designated quality body and that decisions on a recommendation would be made over the summer, and that OfS is very closely engaged with DfE post-legislative scrutiny of HERA 2017 (set to become this autumn’s hot ticket but noted here as due in late September).

But there’s big stuff on the student voice – 298 people applied to join the student panel (of which eight were appointed), while OfS followed DfE’s lead in refusing to engage with NUS while the investigation is underway (and there’s no promises on a return to engagement when the investigation concludes and NUS responds).

Annex B is the risk stuff – redacted as usual – while Annex C is a fascinating request from the executive for the board’s position to change the name of the TEF in condition B6.

Update on key performance measures

The paper is redacted, but the KPMs were published (after a fashion).

Market exit pathways framework

As flagged in the last meeting, a fascinating sounding discussion on lessons that could be learned about market exit from the response to the ALRA affair. Redacted, of course.

Equality statement and objectives in our regulatory role: report and next phase

We’ll have to wait for Spring 2023 for these new equality objectives, the paper is redacted. Annex A is a report on progress against the existing framework between 2016-22 – full of powerful stuff about how great the regulatory approach to setting the same output targets for all student groups is, and trailing this autumn’s release of an even more complex version of the Access and Participation data dashboard. If you know the OfS web pages on equality and diversity, you’ll probably recognise a lot of this material.

Equality at the OfS

Hauntingly familiar to those up to date with recent OfS publications, this paper outlined to the board that the median age of OfS’ 400+ staff members is 39, while just seven per cent are from a minority ethnic background (down from 9 per cent in 2021, but with a greater proportion not reporting data).

Presentation on OfS people

We’d imagine that this was a response to the last item.

Finance report

Why does DfE have to give OfS extra funding to do regulatory investigations given the amount it takes in from subscriptions in order to literally regulate stuff? The answer to this diverting question and many more are most likely in this report – which is not something we get to see.

Student panel update

June’s meeting saw discussion on the B registration conditions and essay mills, with the relevant OfS executive around to take notes. The panel reported that they see much more communication from essay mills than they do from providers on the consequences of using those services – they did make a sensible point about the need to look at the reasons students use these services which we hope was taken forward.

Otherwise panel members have been participating in workshops and interviews about the blended learning review (due any day now) and on the use of NSS data.

There’ll be better alignment between the student panel and the board in future as regards meeting timings – and we’re glad to note that minutes will routinely be published by OfS. There’s a repeat of the earlier stuff about recruiting new panel members, and a farewell to the old cohort.

Oral report from the Provider Risk Committee

In all honesty this is not one we are ever going to get to see, as much as we might like to.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

A report to the board summarising the outcomes of the Quality Assessment Committee meeting held on 18 May 2022 says the OfS website – but no! It is indeed the Risk and Audit Committee as per the title.

There’s a redacted paragraph, but other than that we appear to be looking at a clean bill of health for the OfS on risk and audit. Advice on the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the NAO is noted, though OfS is “largely unaffected”.

Report from the Remuneration and Nominations Committee

We get remuneration information in the OfS annual report – these regular reports to the board in the interim are always redacted.

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