Not another one! Even more ministerial priorities for OfS

The Secretary of State has written a letter! And this is no ordinary letter – it’s a fresh slice of “Strategic Guidance” to the Office for Students, setting out even more “ministerial priorities” than the last letter, issued just three months ago.

There are lots of ways to “read” the letter, and if nothing else there’s a huge wedge of extra things on the plate for an already cash-strapped and busy English regulator. But given it was probably constructed when Jo Johnson was back in the department for seven weeks, it’s hard not to see it as a kind of reset to the agenda of the pre-Augar days – with a bit of international action added, and the triumphant return of TEF centre-stage. If post-sudy work visas was the pleasant bit of Jo Johnson’s legacy, this letter is probably the sting in the tail for much the sector.

Not another one!

Back in the days of the English funding council, an annual letter would tumble out of the department in the bleak midwinter, attaching mood music to the wedge of public funds that HEFCE was expected to disburse in tune with. But this year as well as February’s missive from Sam Gyimah, for some reason we had a bonus one from Damian Hinds in the height of summer, and now yet another one the start of an unusually warm autumn. OfS’ provider registration income budget gets tighter every time we look, so perhaps we’ll get another letter every time DfE has to put more cash in.

Gavin Williamson uses “the new academic year” and preparations “to exit the EU on 31 October” as his official anchors for the communique, although he is keen to stress that it “supplements, rather than supersedes” guidance issued earlier this year (which is exactly what the last one said in June). At this rate the OfS board probably ought to have a standing item to consider that quarter’s ministerial guidance letter – or it could go on as it has not tabling the letters for discussion at all. It’s not as if its regulatory prioritisation framework includes doing something about “the views or priorities of ministers” (or indeed the views or priorities of students).

For those interested, this bonus bonus letter weighs in at five pages and 2,338 words, and this time is signed by the Secretary of State himself. There’s the usual stuff about thanking OfS Chair Michael Barber for the progress made so far, some boxes on buzzword bingo ticked (“world-class higher education sector”, “delivering value for money for all”), a pat on the back for the “robust approach” being taken to access and participation, and then we’re into the meat.

And on that bombshell

Our first big surprise concerns the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). There are those who thought they’d provided Dame Shirley Pearce and her review panel just enough ammo to kill off the exercise at subject-level, but whether she recommended that or not, here he directs OfS “to publish subject level TEF in 2021” alongside the implementation of a new TEF model to be developed “following the publication of the government response to the Independent Review” that we’ve not even seen yet. Presumably it will now have to be laid before Parliament the very moment it gets back so we know what it might look like, although OfS’ board has seen the review and so is already prepping.

For those upset that TEF was taking a year off to allow providers to prepaare for subject level in 2020, there’s even better news – “I would also like the OfS to consider running a further provider-level TEF assessment exercise with results to be published in 2020”. That could mean the 2017 batch will still be extended to 2021, but it’s more likely that party supplies shops will be getting big orders for gold ticker tape next summer. Quite how the central critiques of subject-level TEF will be addressed – its vast cost, its statistical problems and its lack of use by prospective students – remains to be seen.

Really going global

There’s the paragraphs you would expect on leaving the EU and OfS playing a role in “no deal” planning as we head towards Halloween, and warm words on Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020. But there’s another surprise too – in pursuit of the agreed international education strategy, he’s tasking OfS with taking steps to “ensure international students feel integrated on campus”; are supported “in terms of their mental health and wellbeing” and ensuring that international students “receive the employability skills they need” to be supported into employment – either in their home country or the UK.

He’s therefore calling for “public, transparent data on the outcomes” achieved by international students, and he even mandates the inclusion in that data of those studying on TNE courses “wholly outside the UK” – as well as asking for a specific strand on “harmful student recruitment practices” aimed at international students, presumably by arm’s length agents. Some in the sector uncritically celebrating the return of the post-study work visa will be rapidly sobering up at news of this other side to Gavin’s UUK-speech “deal”.

Selling students short

There’s a fun section carefully headed as “admissions, marketing and recruitment”, with a welcome for OfS’ review of the admissions system and a ministerial endorsement for a consideration of “the pros and cons” of PQA. He’s the first to note that “this has been considered before”, but also keen to stress that “the context in which the sector is operating has changed”. There’s also a rehearsal of the lines on (conditional) unconditional offer making and other recruitment practices “including the use of inducements” that could have an adverse impact on the access and success of students in higher education. It’s not an issue that’s going away.

There’s long been DfE disappointment around both part-time and flexible learning, and with the introduction of private providers as the driver of that change looking shaky and Augar in the long grass, instead there’s a mix of things for OfS to do. Gavin wants an evaluation of (already) agreed Access and Participation Plans, and is pleased to see another OfS “Challenge Competition” in the offing – but also uses the letter to announce another (another!) funding review, this time looking at the “regulatory and funding arrangements surrounding flexible provision”, covering areas like “how current funding is used by providers” and “how performance metrics support and incentivise flexible provision”. Brace, brace – he wants a plan to be agreed by the end of November and an interim report by the end of March 2020. Where have we heard that sort of thing before?

As has been done with degree apprenticeships, he’s also asking OfS to “raise awareness” of hitherto ignored-by-applicants-and-providers accelerated degrees – and if you thought that that thing about students switching providers had gone quiet, he wants to see a “plan for how you will use your regulatory powers” on student transfer too.

Value added

There’s the inevitable passage on “value for money”, an agenda written into OfS’ duties in the legislation but one that went curiously quiet while we waited for a response to Augar. CEO Nicola Dandridge has been at pains to point out that the first bit of research that OfS commissioned back when she was hotdesking at HEFCE was on VFM, and now for Gavin it represents “the highest priority” – framed here as “rigorous decision-making during the initial registration process” and “taking action where monitoring of providers’ compliance with ongoing conditions of registration suggests that there are courses and providers that are not delivering value for students”. Come again? “Where… there are unacceptable levels of drop-out rates or failures to equip students with qualifications that are recognised and valued by employers… we fully support the OfS in using the full range of monitoring and enforcement powers it now has at its disposal”.

He also “fully supports” OfS’ intention to “revisit the minimum baselines” used when making regulatory judgements about student outcomes, exploring where “current baseline requirements might be raised” and wants to see “even more rigorous and demanding quality requirements” to apply to providers in the future. Maybe this will involve telling us what the minimum outcomes actually are. Hopefully, says the subtext, you’ll pick up on the things that we didn’t when we were facilitating access to the loan book directly out of DfE just a matter of months ago, which is one way to frame a failure.

I promise you they’re consumers

Finally, as well as chucking in a line on free speech and another on “harassment, racial abuse, antisemitism and other forms of intolerance and prejudice”, there’s a section on OfS prioritising work supporting students as “empowered consumers”. Promises have to be “delivered”, choices need to based on clear, comparable, and relevant information about what is being offered – and contractual terms and conditions have to be “fair, clear and transparent”.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s a rehash of a Jo Johnson announcement – back in July 2017 JJ said that OfS would consult on whether a “systematic use of an improved student-contract” would help ensure “effective consumer protection for students” paying what will for many be their “third largest life-long expenditure after a home and pension plan”. It’s attracted almost identical weekend press coverage too. Presumably frustrated at the lack of progress to date, this time he would like the OfS to report its conclusions and make initial recommendations to Government “by February 2020”. Who said we were in for a quiet winter?

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