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How OfS will regulate access and participation

Louis Coiffait summarises how the Office for Students will regulate university access and participation in England.
This article is more than 5 years old

Louis was an Associate Editor at Wonkhe.

Today, the Office for Students (OfS) publishes its 38-page response to the consultation on access and participation that ran from 7 September to 12 October. It will implement the proposals with some minor amendments, retaining the three levers of oversight, funding, and transparency.

There were 189 responses and about 400 people attended five events held around the country. An independent 92-page analysis of responses by CFE Research – also published today – concludes there’s “broad support” for the proposals and that they should help the sector take a “more strategic, long-term view”. Responses also point out there are major inequalities across the whole student lifecycle. There are calls for OfS assessments of risk to be clear and rigorous, and not to discourage innovation. NUS and students’ unions raised the lack of student input. Also, among high-tariff providers particularly, there were fears that comparisons with other providers aren’t helpful (be careful what you wish for, see below).

Mind the gaps

OfS admits this is an area where it will be more hands-on with individual institutions, rather than leaving things to “market forces alone”. Approved (fee cap) providers that seek government-backed loans (via the Student Loan Company) for fees above the “basic” amount of £6,250 must have an approved access and participation plan, as a condition (A1) of their registration. Approved (not fee cap) providers can charge above that amount but without the accompanying loans. Universities must convince OfS they’re monitoring their own performance and taking “reasonable steps” to deliver on their plan. Six of the 250 providers on the Register so far have conditions of registration, with three relating to access and participation, and two to student outcomes.

From the 2020-21 academic year, institutions must publish and submit an annual impact report (outcomes achieved, lessons learned and commentary from students, but format and content still TBC), accompanied by an “action plan” detailing any smaller changes to their original access and participation plan. If there are bigger strategic changes a provider can resubmit their plan for approval in any year.

OfS promises these requirements will be “proportionate”, with a lower burden for those perceived to be less likely to breach a condition (i.e. A1) in the future, and considering the context and size of a provider. Exactly how those two types of proportionality are judged by OfS will be of keen interest to small, specialist and new providers.

OfS now expects providers to set out their own individual plans with a “small number of outcomes-focused” targets to capture the impact of their work. These can be set collaboratively among groups of providers. Some of these targets will be recommended by OfS and, “as appropriate”, align with four sector-wide targets (and OfS’s own key performance measures published in September). These aim to eliminate four equality gaps completely over time:

  1. Eliminate the gap in entry rates (at universities with higher-tariff entry requirements only) between the most and least represented groups, by 2038-39. This is split into two age groups.
    • For 18- and 19-year-olds, the target is a phased reduction in the ratio in entry rates between POLAR4 quintile 5 (the most advantaged students) to quintile 1 (most disadvantaged), from 5.1:1 (10.2 per cent) in 2016-17, to 2.8:1 (8.9 per cent) by 2024-25.
    • A target for older learners will be published in spring, apparently because this is a smaller group and the data is more complex.
  2. Eliminate the unexplained gap in non-continuation between the most and least represented groups by 2024-25, and eliminate the absolute gap (both structural and unexplained differences) entirely by 2030-31.
  3. Eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between white and Black students by 2024-25, and eliminate the absolute gap (both structural and unexplained differences) entirely by 2030-31.
  4. Eliminate the gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between disabled and non-disabled students by 2024-25.

Although Chris Millward told me this is a “generational vision”, he said there will be “real pressure” in the next five years. It’s odd then that OfS is deferring setting a fifth sector-wide target, its own “key performance measure 1: the gap in participation between most and least represented groups [at all universities]”, until after the post-18 review. Also, given the consultation didn’t explicitly mention tariff, target #1 above is interesting, suggesting OfS believes the biggest gaps correlate with higher tariffs (so some providers should do more than others and sooner, regardless of the review). Some might also argue there is evidence about what constitutes the “unexplained” differences.

According to DfE’s own 2016-17 data analysis the 51 (of 163) most selective institutions had an estimated mean UCAS tariff score (from the top three A-level grades) of 262.2 or more.

OfS also states the non-continuation and degree attainment targets are “particularly ambitious” as providers should have more direct control over them, whereas access can be influenced by what happens elsewhere in the education system as well as the alternative options available (read apprenticeships). OfS defines “structural differences” as student entry qualifications and age, as well as subject and provider of study.

Pulling the strings

OfS will challenge providers by focusing on three things; their level of ambition, the credibility of their plans (including self-assessment of performance and the planned investment), and the outcomes they achieve – rather than on their levels of spending or activity.

Respondents wanted more guidance, which OfS will provide in a new regulatory notice in February 2019. This gives those first affected – courses with early application deadlines (e.g. Oxbridge and medical schools) – twelve weeks to develop their plans and targets for a May submission, with OfS committed to making decisions about them by the end of August next year. Those submitting by the end of June will receive decisions in October, and those sent by mid-September will hear by mid-December 2019. This new approach will apply to plans covering the academic years 2020-21 to 2024-25. In general, OfS aims to give providers a minimum of twelve weeks’ notice to develop and submit a new plan, depending on complexity and negotiation.

From the 2020-21 academic year, the frequency of written submissions (i.e. plan duration) will also be “more strategic” than the current annual cycle. Instead, the frequency will be based on how likely a provider is to make sufficient progress in improving equality of opportunity, with less scrutiny of those seen as low risk (e.g. submitting plans every five years) and greater scrutiny for providers considered at risk of lagging behind (e.g. every three years or more frequently). It’s more that risk-based regulation, though obviously, the devils are in the often subjective details.

Regulation of access interacts with other parts of the regulatory framework, such as governance, outcomes and finances. Expenditure relevant to access will be submitted elsewhere by providers as part of ongoing financial conditions (D). Some respondents fear transparently publishing data on per-institution access spend will create an “unofficial league table”.

Access and participation plans will include predicted access spending split three ways; pre-16 activity, post-16, and adults and communities. OfS teaching grant (i.e. anything OfS funds) can also be used to support the progression of students from underrepresented groups e.g. for collaboration between universities. OfS will continue to collect information about the financial support that institutions provide to students and expects such support to be properly evaluated and communicated. Providers won’t need to report spending on student success and progression, though OfS promises challenge on that via the regulation of access and participation, of quality and student outcomes, and through the National Student Survey (NSS) and TEF. Those providers deemed at risk can expect to provide more information through “enhanced monitoring”, and each year a small sample will enjoy “deeper investigation”.

OfS will also publish a new “access and participation dataset” to show the make-up of student bodies across the sector as a whole and across the student lifecycle, as well as at each individual provider on the Register. This will include free school meals as well as POLAR4, ethnicity, age and disability data, and be available to providers in late February in time to inform the next set of access and participation plans. It will go public later in the year accompanied by interactive dashboards and a user guide. After that, an intersectional measure of disadvantage will be developed and added to the dataset. It’ll be interesting to see how the press deals with that.

Efficacy and support

Those providers charging higher tuition fees are also required (F1 – the “transparency duty” as it’s called) to submit data about admissions and student outcomes, split by student characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. OfS says it will explore extending this to include age and disability, as neither was in HERA. Evaluation will also be “tougher”, with providers having to use a new self-assessment tool to demonstrate their evaluation practice and improvement plans, although, in light of concerns about the burden, this is now only when submitting an access and participation plan, rather than as part of annual monitoring as originally proposed.

OfS also commits to working with others in improving the provision of tracking services (such as HEAT and STROBE), as it sees these playing a “central role”. OfS will review the whole data landscape including a value-for-money assessment, and the potential for building sector-wide capabilities.

There will be support for providers from the evidence and impact exchange, a national “what works centre” which will be outlined early next year. Evaluation tools, training, events, online tools and guidance will also be provided, such as a new development tool for providers’ outreach work with under 16-year-olds, published today too.

The OfS board has agreed in principle to continue funding the National Collaborative Outreach Programme until the end of the 2020-21 academic year. This is to try and ensure access and participation plans work with schools in a way that is embedded, joined-up and targeted to local needs. Support beyond that is dependent on the 2019 Comprehensive Spending Review. However, OfS also states it will review its entire funding approach towards access and participation, including the student premium, after the post-18 review concludes.

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