The Office for Students (OfS) has been up and running for nearly six months now, and yesterday we published our key performance measures: the metrics against which we – and I hope others – will judge our performance.
There is much to be proud of in the English higher education system. Quality across the sector is generally strong and it has – with good reason – an outstanding global reputation. Nonetheless, there is significant scope for improvement, but in the context of the sector starting from a strong position.
A central tenet in developing these measures is a focus on outcomes. Inputs and processes are important, but what we care most about is making a difference to students’ lives. We care about actually reducing the black attainment gap far more than we care about the number or precise nature of programmes set up to address it. We want regulation to tangibly improve students’ lives, and our key performance measures are designed to reflect this. Where we don’t already have established metrics that measure the relevant outcomes, we are going to create new ones.
We are also conscious that our key performance measures will not tell us the whole story – they are only proxy measures. Further, we cannot possibly reduce the vast diversity of student experiences into individual data points. But we can use these proxies as a starting point to help us understand whether we and the sector are improving outcomes for students.
The measures shared today reflect our strategic priorities. They do not set out the totality of everything that matters in English HE. There are many more measures that we will track, and areas where we hope to make improvements working with students and the sector. The measures announced today are important because they focus on the areas where we feel there is the greatest need and the greatest opportunity to improve.
Success and autonomy
It is also fair to say that these measures capture many shared objectives for the sector. At the OfS we are not the first to say that more needs to be done to help the least represented groups participate in higher education, that there needs to be more widespread use of evidence in access and participation work, or that student satisfaction is important. These are things we know the sector aims to achieve, independent of our regulation.
The OfS is not set up to pursue a command and control model of regulation. We are regulating a sector in which there is a correlation between success and autonomy, and our regulatory model reflects this. While we won’t hesitate to intervene where students’ interests need to be protected, we hope such cases will be rare. The key performance measures reflect this; what will really influence the quality of student experience and outcomes is what universities and providers do, the quality of their relationship with students, and the quality of staff engagement. The actions we at OfS take will primarily only have an indirect influence, and we have constructed our key performance measures with this indirect relationship in mind.
The key performance measures are therefore focused on outcomes that will only ever be realised through the hard work of students and staff; our job is to create the space for them to do so, and intervene where the risks become too great.
Our performance measures apply to the OfS, and do not bind individual providers. Their primary function is to guide our operations and ensure we are accountable. They will act as a guiding light internally, focusing our efforts and shaping how we prioritise our activities and deploy our resources. Externally, they will enable students, universities and colleges, and the general public, to see how we are performing as an organisation and challenge use where we need to improve.
We will update performance against these measures whenever new data becomes available. We expect, and hope, to be subjected to scrutiny. It is right that students, providers, and indeed everyone with an interest in HE can see how we are performing, both where we are succeeding and where we need to redouble our efforts.
In future, we will set targets for each measure to guide our work and help others to see clearly how far we are succeeding. Together, these measures and the forthcoming targets will reflect our bold and ambitious agenda. We will be setting a high bar for ourselves. There is no guarantee that our targets will be achieved – but that’s the point. Unexpected external factors will always influence these measures, and may prevent progress. But in an uncertain world, we still believe in the importance of measuring our performance against our goals. On their own, they cannot tell the whole story of our performance, but they can highlight possible issues, prompt reflection, and focus attention where it may be needed most.
Over the coming years, there will no doubt be plenty of debate about how we have operated and whether should have acted differently – this can only be a good thing, and I look forward to this constructive debate and the improvements that will follow. I hope these key performance measures will focus these debates on what really matters, and enable students, citizens, and the sector to judge us by our record.