It is almost two years since the Office for Students became the regulator for higher education in England.
Since then, we have registered 394 universities, colleges, specialist and independent providers. In the process, we have tested them against robust measures of quality, access and participation, governance and financial stability, all intended to ensure a minimum quality threshold and to reassure students and taxpayers about the strength of individual providers. During the course of that process, we have seen numerous examples of outstanding teaching, ambitious and credible access and participation plans, and effective leadership.
Speaking out on poor practice
However, we have also been unafraid to speak out where the evidence has pointed to poor practice: poor quality provision, inadequate approaches to improving access or outcomes, grade inflation, conditional unconditional offers, and excessive vice-chancellor pay. We believe that our direct approach is already contributing to positive changes in these areas.
This process has not been without its share of friction. Robust regulation from a regulator is different to conditions of funding from a funding council, and the relationship between regulator and regulated can never be one of co-regulatory consensus. We believe that effective regulation in the student interest requires a degree of distance from the sector, and an ability and willingness to be a dispassionate judge of what is and – most importantly for a regulator – what is not in the interests of students. Nonetheless, the relationship should entail mutual respect, ultimately working towards shared objectives.
Reducing regulatory burden
So, as the OfS moves from large scale registration to risk-based monitoring and intervention, it is a good time to reflect on that regulatory relationship.
In particular, I am keen that the OfS looks at practical steps to make the regulatory experience as proportionate and smooth as possible for those we regulate. In our regulatory framework we committed to reducing bureaucracy and unnecessary regulatory burden for individual providers. I am also committed to getting the tone right in our communications in a way that reflects both distance and respect. And now that the initial registration process has been largely completed, there are five steps we are taking to meet those commitments:
- Regulatory burden is a challenge for every regulator, and the OfS is no different. By definition, regulation requires burden and if we removed all regulatory burden we would render ourselves entirely ineffective. However, we can separate that which is necessary in the student interest from that which may be superfluous or cumbersome. In assessing how those principles play out in practice, we want a sense of what our regulation feels like at ground level. So, when I spoke to the Association of Colleges’ conference last week, I announced a review that will help us assess the impact of our regulatory activity on individual providers.
- We will shortly be publishing new guidance on an area that I know has caused frustration to some universities and colleges – reportable events. The guidance will set out in clear terms the things providers need to tell the OfS about, and explain how we will deal with those reports. I hope this will provide greater clarity about our expectations and the reasons for these because it is important that universities and colleges understand what we expect from them, as well as what they can expect from us.
- We are improving how we correspond with universities and colleges in response to their feedback. Some providers have found our engagement with them too impersonal. In future, letters and emails will normally be sent from named individuals so it is clear who has dealt with individual queries. We have added specific contact details to our website, so that providers can quickly reach the most relevant teams with questions, with a dedicated phone number for regulation and monitoring queries. We also plan to move to two release dates per month for letters and consultations we send to vice chancellors and principals, when possible, so that the pace of communications feels more ordered.
- We have taken steps internally to improve the clarity and tone of our communications to individual providers, and to make them feel less bureaucratic. We have started to share calendars of key activities, updating them regularly on our website. We will also improve our communications on data requirements, ensuring clearer understanding of how to use our templates, making sure our deadlines allow sufficient time for engagement with both management and with governing bodies/councils where that is expected. We will actively seek feedback as we develop our processes for data collection and presentation
- Later this spring, we will be hosting both a national event and a number of regional events for universities and colleges on our approach to regulation, which will allow us to hear from those we regulate. They will give us the chance to reflect on any further practical steps that ensure proportionality and consistency without compromising on accountability and transparency.
Responding to coronavirus
In considering our regulatory relationship with providers, we do now need to factor in the impact of coronavirus Covid-19. This is a complex, fast-moving and challenging situation, and we will work closely with providers as they respond. Our objective here is to ensure that our regulatory expectations respond effectively to the impact of Covid-19, to ensure that students’ interests are protected and that we play our role in providing support and guidance where appropriate. That is why we have asked all registered providers to tell us about reported cases and their impact. We are also actively considering how we can reduce burden on providers at this time, recognising that the actual and potential impacts of responding to coronavirus will take significant time and resources. We will write to all providers shortly setting this out in detail.
Getting it right is in everyone’s interests
As England’s higher education regulator, we are determined to act resolutely on behalf of all students. Getting it right is not just in their interest, it is in all our interests as a society and economy. Just as we have high expectations of the universities and colleges we regulate, so we have high expectations of ourselves as an effective and proportionate regulator. In this way, we will help ensure that all students can flourish and succeed.