Good regulation welcomes critical and robust challenge

Office for Students chief executive Nicola Dandridge responds to our week of commentary on the regulator's new strategy

Nicola Dandridge is the Chief Executive of the Office for Students.

The consultation proposals for our second OfS strategy mark a significant milestone for the organisation.

Our first strategy encompassed a model of regulation that was entirely new to the higher education sector. It was a set-up strategy. Throughout its duration much of our time and resources were spent in devising and refining our regulatory approach, as well as the substantial process of registering hundreds of higher education providers.

In 2020, the pandemic halted much of our normal regulatory activity but as we emerge from the pandemic now is the time to set out how we intend our regulation to work from 2022-25.

Evolution not revolution

It is true that in terms of regulatory substance, the content of our proposed second strategy is not startlingly different to the previous one. That is because our mission hasn’t changed, and we believe that the objectives set out in the previous strategy still hold good. What is different is the focus.

We have drawn on our experience of the last four years to put forward a sharper and leaner version of those same objectives, and in doing so have focused in on how we intend to take forward our two core themes of quality and standards and equality of opportunity. These are core issues which lie at the heart of the higher education experience – for current students, those yet to apply, and for graduates.

The strategy proposals therefore set out how we intend to translate our commitment to quality and equality of opportunity into practice. An important element of this will be an increase in our investigatory and enforcement work. Enforcement of regulatory requirements is part of what any effective regulator should do, and we propose taking proportionate action in order to secure compliance with regulatory baselines.

OfS ❤️ Wonkhe

It has been helpful this week to read from so many sector experts what they would like to see in our strategy. Some of them are critical or challenging – a regulator in such a diverse and debated sector which won universal plaudits would likely not be doing its job properly. Some of the comments and suggestions don’t align with our powers and their limits under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

But all comments, critical, stretching or supportive, are welcome. It is helpful to have challenge – for example to ask what our role should be around student welfare issues, or to question the level of burden our regulation requires.

On student welfare, the proposals set out clear goals on improving student mental health and the need for providers to take action to tackle harassment.

For mental health, we’re proposing to continue to work collaboratively with providers and others. We plan to evaluate our interventions to date, which have included – but are certainly not limited to – funding a range of innovative programmes to support and improve mental health. And we will consider the work universities and other higher education providers are doing to make sure that the mental health of students is being considered strategically and effectively.

We have previously said that we will consider the responses of universities and other higher education providers to our statement of expectations on reducing harassment and sexual misconduct. The strategy proposes a range of activities – up to and including the use of our enforcement powers – which we may take once we have evidence of the work universities have undertaken in response to the statement of expectations.

Lightening the load

We also want to continue to review the burden of our regulation, and no doubt many consultation responses from providers and their representatives will touch on this. Our central aim here is to reduce unnecessary burden – something we are already addressing. In becoming more risk-based in the way we monitor compliance with our conditions we expect to vary regulatory burden according to the risks individual providers pose. For many that would mean a further reduction in regulatory burden; those who pose the greatest risks would likely see our requirements increase.

The student voice made an important contribution to the proposals for the new OfS strategy. The OfS student panel was consulted early on in its development, and we conducted a comprehensive literature review to understand the prevailing views of students and identify issues in the student interest. We are developing and refining our student engagement strategy and this remains a continuing process.

But most importantly for the purpose of the new strategy, our proposals are now subject to consultation, allowing students, students unions and other external representatives to make their views heard. We would encourage all students and their representatives to respond to the consultation.

The consultation closes on 6 January 2022. Please do take some time to look through our proposals and respond to the consultation. It is essential that we understand the views and concerns of everyone with an interest in higher education as we take our new strategy forward.

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