He’s been! OfS gives us an annual (review) for Christmas

We got an annual for Christmas from OfS. Jim Dickinson rips off the wrapping and takes a look

When I was a kid the “go to” Christmas present from an imaginationless uncle was one of those annuals featuring your favourite pop stars or TV show.

If you were a big fan they were always a bit of a disappointment – what could 32 glossy hardback pages tell you that you already knew – and were quickly discarded. But occasionally you’d find things that predicted the future. That member of a boyband wearing an engagement ring in a photo on page 45, or that interview hinting at major changes to the cast on page 62. That sort of thing.

He’s been!

Anyway, the Office for Students has only gone and given us an annual for Christmas! Fresh from the silence imposed by the pre-election period (because, you know, the grade inflation stats could easily have swung Stoke) we have the regulator’s first annual review. It’s a glossy 70-page thriller that is officially framed as “a wide-ranging assessment of the higher education sector in England”, but is really a wide-ranging self-assessment of higher education as it’s seen from planet Nicholson House, and OfS’ role in delivering it.

Regular readers will know that we’re big fans at Wonkhe, and so it’s naturally a bit of a disappointment – it’s largely material that we already know, and will be quickly discarded as a result. It’s familiar stuff – “England’s universities and colleges have a deservedly world class reputation”, but “their future success requires robust regulation where poor quality practices are letting students down”, says CEO Nicola Dandridge in the press release.

Higher education in England is “outstanding by many measures” and commands “high levels of student satisfaction, excellent teaching and learning, and higher salaries for graduates”. But the sector’s reputation “cannot be taken for granted” and “should not prevent poor quality provision being acknowledged and addressed”. Taking on those that say that OfS has been aiding and abetting university bashing in recent years, she goes on:

“It is simply wrong to suggest that criticism of poor-quality provision and poor outcomes for students, when appropriate and evidenced, amounts to disloyalty that will damage the reputation of English higher education. Indeed, the reality is exactly the opposite: saying that everything is perfect in every university and college, when it plainly is not, is dishonest and corrosive, and ultimately will do more damage by undermining trust and confidence.

Once you’re through the introduction, we’re then treated to all of OfS’ greatest hits, and we’re very much in the territory of a scrapbook of OfS’ internal logic here. “Over the last year the OfS has also intervened in a range of areas where we hope the higher education sector will take decisive action itself, in order to avoid further regulatory intervention”, says one section. “OfS will not hesitate to act where there is clear evidence of practices that fail to serve the student or the public interest”, says another. Access and Participation, the registration process, the TEF, and “sector level” interventions (through both press work and things like challenge competitions) all get an airing in one handy PDF.

Looking closer

Now that the sector is largely gathered around the Gavin and Stacey special, we’ve done the Wonkhe thing and looked as closely as we can to see if there’s any of those engagement rings buried in the booklet. And we think there might be a few.

First of all, both the press release and the press briefing majored on future work on “false and misleading advertising” in how universities “sell themselves to prospective students”. Some of that is about “inducements” and there was a long debate in the briefing about what would count as an inappropriate inducement and what would not. It will be a tough line to draw (when does a “clearing bursary” become immoral etc), but what’s clear that OfS’ admissions review is obviously going to look closely at how universities market and sell themselves to students beyond the obvious debate about “conditional unconditional” offers. The need for a code of ethics for university marketing has never been more salient and is the type of thing that Barberology likes when people misbehave in a market.

Next we are told that amongst students, there is potentially a “lack of clarity about their rights”:

“Our focus extends beyond the provision of information for prospective students, to encompass support for their consumer rights throughout their time in higher education. We recognise the importance of clear, effective complaints systems, and we are working with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to look at what more we can do in this area. We will also be seeking to ensure that student contracts, including their terms and conditions, are fair, transparent and accessible.

Some in the sector will shudder here, but if you accept the internal logic of OfS and students as consumers, it’s probably true to surmise that right now students are not aware of their rights and find it hard to enforce them. In the year ahead OfS will “work to ensure that all students can benefit from the protections of consumer rights legislation”, which may well be better than nothing for the wronged student battling a university’s legal department.

Until now OfS has tended to argue that issues like welfare and safeguarding would be tackled through “provider level” action (things like funding and reports), but the almost daily drip drip of press tales in this space have been exerting pressure for something more robust at provider level. The day after the election was called OfS was due to start consulting on expectations in relation to harassment and safeguarding – and hiding on page 46 and we get a little preview that indicates that prevention will matter too:

“We intend to publish a consultation document laying out our expectations for universities and colleges in terms of preventing harassment and sexual misconduct, and dealing appropriately and effectively with reports of infringements.

Consultation probably means changes to the regulatory framework, and it’ll be interesting to see how it anchors this stuff back to OfS’ avowed focus on outcomes rather than processes – but in any event it’s clear that change is coming, which is probably a good thing. Whether it tackles some of the trickier issues – like questions of “jurisdiction” over students’ off campus or social lives – is a different question.

All of that is what it is, but most interesting of all is the return of that B3 bear.

He’s wearing an engagement ring

You’ll know the Conservative manifesto discusses “low value” courses, and there was some debate in the run up to the election about the potential return of student number controls. What many haven’t spotted is that they have already returned.

In many ways, both the TEF and the provider registration process are metrics-driven conceptions of value, taking into account a range of measures. Some providers haven’t been allowed onto the register – a kind of number control. Two providers have been given B3 (outcomes) conditions which prevent them from expanding until they’ve completed an action plan. It’s a numbers control, Nicola, but not as we know it.

There’s a fascinating anomaly in the measure given to West London College. It’s got a formal condition of registration on the basis of some of its outcomes – yet on its website it’s boasting about its TEF Silver award, which denotes “the excellent outcomes achieved by our students”. Those that understand the processes and the history know why this is the case, but it’s obviously nonsensical – and when I asked whether OfS would be taking steps to reconcile the logic of the two approaches (baseline based ongoing registration, and the TEF), I got a short and sharp “Yes”.

But there’s something else buried in the document – the engagement ring on the boyband member, if you will. You’ll recall that Gavin Williamson wrote to OfS in September announcing subject-TEF and asking OfS to raise its regulatory baseline. You’ll also recall that I’ve been baffled by the idea that a college with 500 business studies students can be refused registration, but a university with 500 business studies students with worse outcomes might not be touched because the averages across that university’s 20,000 students are OK.

So imagine if OfS has been working on a solution to that “low value” courses thing, that at a stroke tackles that logic problem, delivers something for the minister to say and enables a kind of student number control that is highly defensible:

“We set numerical baselines for indicators such as continuation, completion and employment as part of our assessment of the outcomes delivered for Students. Our view is that a minimum level of performance should be delivered for all students, regardless of their background or what and where they study. We will consult on raising these baselines so that they are more demanding, and on using our regulatory powers to require providers to improve pockets of weak provision.”

Pick on a pocket or two

What’s that you say? How do you define a “pocket”? I’m not mystic meg, but I’m pretty convinced that one way you could define a “pocket” – an “oven ready” way, if you will – would be to take the “pockets” that subject-TEF will draw around groups of students. In other words, a TEF that’s integrated with baseline outcomes regulation at subject level will enable conditions of registration to be imposed – and even refusals – at subject level.

There probably aren’t any universities where the simplistic cliche is true – the university where one department does well on outcomes (but terribly on access) and another does terribly on outcomes but very well on access. But large universities enable averages, and given how grateful politicians will be for a way of doing number controls and VFM by the back door, and how hard “poor” provision will be to defend (“oh yeah, we recruit poor kids in that dept but they all drop out or get no jobs”), I’m betting my Christmas money that that’s what’s coming.

What if universities close departments rather than improve the provision? Oh, better guidance is coming on student protection plans. What that could all do to geographical access to subjects is pretty predictable, and you can go round and round in circles on whether that would be in “in the student interest”, but this is almost certainly what’s coming – and depending on your outlook, it’s either miserable and dystopian, or long overdue.

In some ways, the regulator is just getting started – and Season 2 (or the “imperial phase” second album) looks set to be very dramatic indeed. Merry Christmas!

3 responses to “He’s been! OfS gives us an annual (review) for Christmas

  1. It’s mighty depressing. Love him though I do, I am starting to hope Jim is wrong about almost everything. Trouble is, he isn’t

  2. The OfS regulatory framework and HERA are both focused on regulating at provider-level, not each subject they teach. Any move towards subject by subject regulation is a departure that will be hotly contested as we no-doubt head towards programme-by-programme regulatory approval. This would see the OfS duplicating territory already covered by external examiners and PSRBs, which shouldn’t be necessary if it achieves what it’s set out to do with improvements to external examining agreed at the UKSCQA.

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