Is OfS asleep or woke at the wheel?

The commons education committee is disappointed in universities and their regulator again. Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan watched the scrutiny so you don't have to

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

What are Commons Education Committee non-inquiry hearings for?

It’s a fair question, and one that deserves a bit of explanation. As last set out in 2012 the main job of any House of Commons committee is to hold a particular department or departments to account – in the case of the Education Committee that’s primarily the Department for Education. This scrutiny is supposed to extend to government strategy, policy, performance, legislation (pre- and post- the main legislative process), and key appointments.

In 2019, committees got a new role – they could now range across matters of public concern in relation to their other responsibilities. Optimists thought this would allow committees to seek speedy responses from anyone with significant power over the lives of citizens, or with public responsibilities. Cynics thought this would allow committees to make a desperate plea for relevance by spouting headline-worthy talking points – generating little insight or edification in the process.

Halfon, half-off

As such we can imagine some differences of opinion over the March 22 encounter, officially billed as a session that would question key higher education stakeholders on why students from lower income backgrounds and some minority groups are less likely to complete university, receive top grades, and proceed to employment.

Things got off to an awkward start when committee chair and long-time NUS opponent Robert Halfon announced that NUS wasn’t coming – Halfon pointed out that that was down to illness, but argued that NUS had shown “great reluctance” to appear, and was careful to insinuate that it might have had more to do with an antisemitism controversy surrounding its conference that it has been dealing with over the past week:

We were told yesterday at 4.30 that NUS could no longer attend because their representative was unwell. We asked for a replacement and that was refused. I do think it is disappointing that NUS have responded in this way… there are also some controversies on antisemitism involving the NUS and it would have been good to question them on this…  they should be accountable to parliament.”

The NUS response was… robust:

Halfon’s first actual question – aimed at OfS CEO Nicola Dandridge – concerned antisemitism on campus, quoting from Campaign Against Antisemitism polling showing that 92 perent of British jews believe that antisemitism in universities is a problem. Dandridge talked about both the regulator’s statement of expectations on harassment, and its gathering of voluntary university sign ups to the IHRA working definition of antisemitism – but Halfon wanted detail on enforcement, and that’s where Dandridge was on shakier ground:

Well, we’ve got powers and responsibilities in relation to a variety of regulatory conditions including free speech, but we’re not the enforcer of equality principles.”

That was a surprising answer, given that the Higher Education and Research Act’s general duties for OfS include “the need to promote equality of opportunity in connection with access to and participation in higher education provided by English higher education providers.” It was one of the many moments where we still seem to have fundamental differences of opinion and understanding about what OfS can or should do in relation to a whole range of issues – and where Dandridge was unable to illustrate any enforcement of powers that OfS does have.

What about Tony Sewell losing his honorary degree at Nottingham? – in came Tom Hunt (Conservative, Ipswich) who appeared to be labouring under the impression that an honorary degree was some kind of student facing role, and apparently saw no irony in suggesting, in a section on free speech, that a “group of 60 MPs” should be telling the university who it can and can’t award an honorary degree to. “We will not let it lie”, added Hunt.

Miriam Cates (Conservative, Penistone and Stocksbridge) wanted the panel’s view on the evidence from the Legatum Institute (a survey of 650 academics from a small number of subject areas across four countries) that students are self-censoring, and that universities are more interested in making sure students feel safe than ensuring that students have their views challenged over freedom of speech. UCAS CEO Clare Marchant countered that her survey work wasn’t finding a clamour from students for safety – but sensing that MPs might feel too challenged by the actual evidence, Hertfordshire VC Quintin McKellar (repping UUK) swung in to make clear to the MPs that “we all are concerned about cancel culture” and that universities are apparently “all concerned about the issues which are suppressing freedom of speech”.

The ball was then in Dandridge’s court. Clearly she’d have to go along with the premise of the question or risk being ostracised – so she noted the “compelling” evidence on self-censorship illustrated why the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is sorely needed – even though the powers it will bestow on the regulator aren’t that different to the powers it already has, something she won’t have been keen to point out amid all the disappointment. In response to follow-up questions, she was careful to caveat that regulation on this should be proportionate and risk based, and that she would be “acutely conscious of the balance” between free speech and student safety.

Is – as Halfon suggested – OfS “sleepy” on this issue? Is “sleepy” the opposite of “woke”? Who can say.

Half a sixpence

Some thirty minutes in, we got to the trailed topic of the meeting, with Anna Firth (Conservative, Southend West) noting that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to go to the “most successful” universities, are much more likely to drop out and are more likely to have poor employment outcomes (“with some notable notable exceptions”). Unsurprisingly, Clare Marchant focussed on IAG, McKellar focussed on prior disadvantage and context, and Brighton VC Debra Humphris (repping the University Alliance) stressed the “value added” for disadvantaged students. Halfon interrupted Dandidge’s description of regulation in this area to question “whether all this is working”, and unsurprisingly Dandridge omitted to mention that OfS has never got around to setting a target on the reduction of the gap in participation between most and least represented groups.

Miriam Cates (Conservative, Penistone and Stocksbridge) raised the issue of “value for money” in higher education. Humphris was impressive in citing documented benefits to society and the taxpayer, centering on applicant agency in choosing a degree “with a plan” and noting differences in civic engagement, health, and wellbeing among graduates. McKellar added higher overall productivity and a greater likelihood of volunteering. Both were solid answers, though we appeared to miss a trick in not linking graduates to local and national growth and prosperity – an issue raised in the government’s own Levelling Up White Paper. Humphris had noted university links to local employers and the value of knowledge exchange.

This left the door open for Anna Firth (Conservative, Southend West) to ask why students were reporting poor value for money. Dandridge dived back to some of the early research that OfS had commissioned on this issue – what do students mean when they say value for money – and landed on teaching quality as a primary concern, something which of course students can’t really make complaints about. Later in the session questions returned to this issue – specifically the differential between funding for early years and higher education. Each witness was keen to highlight that they supported the benefit that early years investment would bring, but it should not be at the cost of higher education. “But there’s only so much money available,” pondered Caroline Johnson (Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham).

There was a curious moment on student mental health where Johnson argued that funding “student space” is one thing, but:

…actually what is far more important is getting back to students promptly that report problems with their mental health. I know of one student who reported extreme stress asking for an extension to a dissertation. And there was no reply to that request. I mean, that that’s just inadequate. And how do students who are who have inadequate support actually report this on a national scale because students do not at the moment fully understand who the people are, who they can report poor practice to?”

If OfS had mentioned mental health considerations in its descriptions of teaching and assessment quality, that might have enabled Dandidge to talk about the regulation it was doing in that area. Instead, she was left arguing that “we are doing much more to promote our notification system so students and student unions know that they can report potential breaches to us”, without ever clarifying which bit of the regulatory framework that the example given by Johnson would have represented a breach of.

Both Kim Johnson (Labour, Liverpool Riverside) and Ian Mearns (Gateshead) had a crack at raising industrial relations – Humphris and McKellar both attempted to reframe around the declining unit of resource, and the Conservative members on the committee didn’t really bite. On questions surrounding online lectures and face-to-face teaching, the panel chose not to point out that lots of lectures are online because of over recruitment thanks to Level 3 grade inflation, with Dandridge predictably using OfS’ new “blended learning” review as a place to park the detail of concerns.

The lingering link between the efficiencies demanded by a frozen unit of resource and moving some large group teaching online also didn’t get an airing. And a long but fairly circular conversation about expectations, contracts and realities barely touched on OfS’ role in causing providers to comply with guidance on consumer protection law – work that OfS has been promising and not delivering for some years now.

One thing that was moderately upsetting about the whole session was the committee’s understanding both of terms like “university” and “student”. The committee – for which universities are very much a peripheral aspect of the agenda – may not have the time or inclination to undergo an induction into what it is that universities do, how they’re funded or the realities for disabled students or commuter students. But so much material in each of these sessions seems to be dogged by committee members and panellists alike talking at cross purposes on the basics – and there is a sense that scoring points seems to matter more than genuine scrutiny of the effectiveness of government policy.

You might also have been surprised to find that throughout the two hours, there was no mention of the cost of living crisis, the Department for Education’s role in providing maintenance funding for students, or ministers’ failure to respond to recommendations in the Augar review on accommodation costs or (current) student finance. Maybe the Education Committee thinks that that sort of thing is for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities committee, or the Department for Work and Pensions committee, or the Treasury committee. Maybe it doesn’t think it’s an issue at all. But surely someone has to notice that maintenance loans are only going up by 2.3 percent this autumn before it’s too late?

One response to “Is OfS asleep or woke at the wheel?

  1. In other OfS news, DfE has just appointed Stockton-on-Tees school teacher Rachel Houchen to the OfS Board.

    I am sure that DfE will be astounded when they realised that, in a huge coincidence, they have appointed the wife of Lord Wharton’s close friend and Conservative Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen. Small world!

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