Is the Office for Students delivering the deliverables?

A year or so ago the government published its first “strategic guidance” letter to the Office for Students. One of the things that surprised us at the time was that while the missive itself was barely four pages long, it included a bonus nine pages of detailed “deliverables”.

We have been tracking the length of the letter from the minister to the funding council (now regulator) for some time. Since 2003 there has been a general downward trend in the length, until last year’s “deliverables” came on the scene. So imagine our surprise when the 2019-20 letter popped into our inbox. It is comparable in length to last year’s letter at just four pages long; but unlike last year, there is no long list of detailed expectations.

It is not clear why this might be. Perhaps DfE capacity is all on secondment to the Brexit department. Maybe it is because many of OfS’ powers only kick in on August 1st 2019, so DfE could get away with being more directive in 2018-19. Maybe DfE trusts OfS to do the right thing now it has established itself. Maybe there is an expectation that last year’s priorities are still live – the letter does say that OfS should “continue its work in implementing steers” from last year’s letter. Maybe Damian Hinds (who signed it this year) and Chris Skidmore (who didn’t) are men of few(er) words.

Whatever the explanation, it does mean that much more of OfS’ work in 2019-20 will be down to its own good judgment and internal decision-making. Whether you are a fan of the current incarnation of the regulator or not, governments exist in part to express the priorities of, and act on the concerns of, citizens. What is therefore worthy of considering is whether OfS has delivered on the deliverables that Sam Gyimah asked it to deliver. We have done just that, and the picture is…mixed.

Creating a new regulatory system and ensuring a smooth transition

In this section Sam Gyimah was keen that OfS “actively encouraged” competition in the sector, and specifically wanted it to foster conditions for “innovative new entrants” to create “greater choice” for students. If this has happened, it hasn’t yet manifested. OfS was to ensure that “unnecessary regulatory burden” was avoided to allow high quality providers of “all ages and sizes” to thrive, but the noises from private and specialist providers is that the registration process has proved difficult and complex to navigate. OfS is caught here trying to run a level playing field. Simultaneously protecting students and enabling new providers and provision is a tough balance – although it will probably be more damned if it fails on the former than the latter.

OfS is playing catch up with its targets on registration. The scale of the task, and an anecdotal lack of staff on the job, mean that it has fallen behind. As I write, 307 providers have been added to the register – most of those to follow will be smaller alternative providers and further education colleges. There are questions that need to be asked about some of the process too. Many providers, we hear, have been undertaking significant discussions with the regulator to avoid a condition of registration. What we do know is that a large proportion of those on the register are under some form of enhanced monitoring. What they’re being monitored on is yet to emerge, but a thematic wash up is due from OfS any day now.

We have covered the widespread concern of the the state of student protection plans (one of Hinds’ few interventions is to request a public report on this issue), and recent headlines regarding institutional governance and financial position do not mesh well with the reassurance that all providers have met the registration requirements in this area. We have not had a public assessment in this space for a year or so now, leaving newspaper stories, Michael Barber speeches and gossip to fill the void, so this is probably an area where everyone would benefit from delivery.

It’s a niche issue, but it is also worth considering the financing of the OfS itself. We are expecting a statutory instrument to be laid before Parliament any day now which would set the parameters for the provider registration fees that will provide for the greatest proportion of the OfS’ running costs. A recently published OfS board paper suggests that this needed to be done by the end of February. It is possible (though uncharacteristic) that the paper was mistaken, but it gives the impression that a failure by DfE to meet this deadline would mean that fees could not be charged and a “contingency” plan would come in to play. On this last day of February, the omission any mention of this issue in Hinds’ letter is puzzling. We can read “contingency plan” as “DfE will settle the bill” in this instance – but you would think that how the OfS will be funded would be worth noting in a letter assigning work to it.

Student protection and consumer rights

The deliverables last year said that “as a first step in ensuring students’ consumer rights are met”, OfS was to take steps to assess the provision of information by providers to students, and assess the availability of impartial advice and support for students. This was to be done “with a particular view to build on the strengths of the established system of student complaints and alternative dispute resolution arrangements for students in higher education” – ie the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

This is interesting because it doesn’t really manifest in the OfS business plan at all, and is not obviously signalled in previous or forthcoming OfS board papers. “Alongside this, I would like the OfS to drive communications actively to raise awareness among students of their rights as consumers”, said the letter. Maybe all of this work is still to come this year.

In addition, Sam wanted OfS to start work to understand providers and students in the unregulated parts of the higher education sector. It is likely that the extended registration process has pushed this down the priority list, but if the number of providers that end up on the register is significantly less than the number that were on the old HEFCE register, there will be real questions about providers that some will argue have managed through franchising to evade real regulation.

Student experience, quality and choice

In the annex to the letter, Sam Gyimah set out an expectation that OfS would “communicate effectively with students”, and would promote “student engagement and representation at provider and sector level”. OfS has not yet set out a student engagement strategy, and while it has made much of the existence of its talented student panel, it is not immediately clear from its minutes that this on its own cuts the mustard, given the size of the regulator and the fact that it operates in the student interest. It is certainly true that to date, OfS’ own engagement with students has been considerably weaker than the engagement it will find within the majority of providers – and there’s little evidence so far that the priorities that the student panel have advocated for, on issues like value for money, have manifested in much OfS action.

One of the lurking issues is that given the politics of it all, OfS sometimes has to pretend that students’ unions aren’t the central, natural and obvious way in which to engage with students in English higher education. The upside of that is that Sam Gyimah’s request that OfS take a “keen interest” in how providers meet their statutory obligations relating to the transparency, accountability and finances of students’ unions didn’t even make it into OfS’ business plan.

Student equalities, wellbeing and harassment

The letter was clear that OfS should promote providers’ active engagement with the “welfare and wellbeing” of their students, in particular on mental health and counter harassment and hate crime. This has largely manifested through challenge funding and having to attend numerous ministerial round tables. Similar lines appear in summary in this year’s letter. The lingering question is the pace of progress, and the lack of actual regulation in these areas – important given the emergent diversity in the sector, and a marked contrast to developments elsewhere in the world, notably Australia.

Electoral registration

One of the stranger amendments to the Higher Education and Research Act was a requirement that OfS facilitate cooperation between providers and electoral registration officers to get students onto the electoral register. It was in the deliverables and guidance was issued, but it is doubtful that the registration team have looked at this area in much detail. In any event, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that electoral registration officers are not keen on playing ball. Students are not known for turning out in droves at local elections, so it’s probably at a snap general election that this will come back onto the agenda.

The rest

To be fair to OfS, most of the other deliverables have – at least in part – been delivered. Grade inflation and unconditional offers were both in there, and they’ve certainly delivered in this area, noisily and publicly. There has been a focus on degree apprenticeships, TEF is happening, and detailed plans to replace Unistats have emerged that were underpinned by decent research. It has certainly stepped up to the plate on access and participation with a radical new approach to regulation in this area, and there has been action on senior pay.

As for this year’s letter, take a look. There’s not much that is new in there, save for this fabulous sentence – “I would like the OfS to work with Research England to improve understanding of teaching and students’ involvement in and contribution to achieving the external economic and societal impacts that are the focus of knowledge exchange activities, with the aim of informing Higher Education Innovation Funding and knowledge exchange strategies from 2021, and the government’s broader ambitions for improving productivity and social mobility”. When it comes to the top priorities of the citizenry, if that isn’t an instruction to deliver then we don’t know what is.

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