OfS has a new priorities letter from ministers

Ministers have been writing to the English regulator again. David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson pull out the priorities

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe


Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Less than a week after the Office for Students (OfS) went to the trouble of consulting on and publishing a strategy that had due regard to previous guidance from ministers, another envelope lands on OfS chair James Wharton’s desk.

It contains news of the return of on-site inspections, a focusing of regulatory enforcements on larger traditional universities and away from newer providers and further education colleges, and preparations for regulating the modular future of post-compulsory education.

In other words, another guidance letter has arrived from OfS – here’s what’s in it.

For those interested, this letter weighs in at seven pages and 3,255 words, and this time is signed by both Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan.

OfS gets so much ministerial correspondence that we kick off with a summary of what is and is not still “guidance” under the terms of section 2(3) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. All guidance dated during or before February 2021 is now no longer in place, with the exception of the letter that defined the Strategic Priorities Grant in January 2021. And there’s more guidance on the way on the Strategic Priorities Grant, but not in this letter.

Skills and levelling up

OfS is expected to continue to co-operate in the design and delivery of an appropriate regulatory regime for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement – coming up with metrics that make sense in a modular world (good luck with that!) and that “interact positively with the admissions regime.” There’s more on admissions to follow.

There is a vague aspiration that the regulator should explore ways to encourage new providers to enter the sector in HE “cold spots” (DK has a blog on that topic he’d be happy to contribute to the cause).

OfS is also asked to work with DfE to grow the uptake of technical education and degree apprenticeships – using (where possible) access and participation targets, information and guidance for applicants, and raising the profile of Institutes of Technology. As providers set their own A&P targets, and OfS has very little to do with Institutes of Technology, we’d imagine that other than adding some new courses (in year!) to Discover Uni that there will be a lot of quite complex work with the department, Ofsted, Ofqual, IfATE, and ESFA ahead.

One cheering nugget in all of this is that QAA assessment gets a mention as an appropriate contribution that OfS could make to the approval and quality assurance of Higher Technical Qualifications. Naming QAA directly – rather than the “designated quality body” – rather second guesses the DQB triennial review process.

Quality and standards

It all boils down to DfE liking what OfS is currently planning to do, but wanting to see it happen as fast as possible – the other side of the seesaw from the sector’s responses on B3 and the TEF all calling for large delays.

We get the expected nods to in-person teaching, and grammar in assessments – these are joined by the probably unwelcome return of the “contact hours” discourse, but based on “intelligence from students” rather than any actual data.

The big news here is DfE priorities for the focus of OfS B3 investigations. Providers have been crying out to get a tip-off on which “flashing red lights” OfS would pick first – and while OfS doesn’t have to do as it’s told, it has been tending to rather a lot recently.

Further education colleges, online-only providers, and part-time get a reprieve – but OfS is asked to focus on the following three areas:

  • larger providers with university title which are below proposed numerical thresholds either for the whole provider, or multiple subject areas; and
  • a set of investigations focused on a major subject grouping with large numbers of students and high variation in outcomes, such as computer science or law, with the intention to drive up the quality of those courses across the sector as a whole; and
  • providers where OfS has long-standing concerns about quality which are confirmed or strengthened by numerical data on student outcomes

Concerns should be followed by “robust regulatory action”, and – following measures in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill – there is a demand for a “visible and effective inspections regime.”

We’re looking at 10-15 “on-site” inspections of providers next year – though it is not clear whether these are expected to be DQB inspections or OfS inspections. These are to be focused on the B conditions other than B3 and to be concerns driven – based on data that does not in itself trigger regulatory action, or on intelligence from students and others.

DfE likes the proposals for TEF, but is concerned that providers that are not allowed even to enter TEF look worse than those with the “requires improvement“ rating. As entering TEF is a requirement of continued registration our feeling is that not being registered does look worse than “requires improvement”. Again, speed is of the essence, so DfE wants TEF results as early as possible in 2023.

Access and participation

The existing plan – new guidance imminently, new access and participation plans approved in the autumn – remains in place, as does the move to a four-year planning cycle. Michelle Donelan’s wheeze on including data on completion rates and highly skilled employment or further study in course advertisements will become a requirement from the next admissions cycle. It will start off voluntarily – with OfS providing guidance – but it could well be subject to regulatory enforcement if providers don’t show willing initially.

Antisemitism

This continues to be a key priority, DfE had a successful summit, but problems remain. Do more, etc.

Risk based regulation and reducing bureaucracy

Ministers would like to see further measurable and visible progress on this over the coming months. Providers will be thrilled to learn that DfE will not be asking OfS to deliver a registration fee reduction for AY 22-23. Kerching!

Freedom of speech and academic freedom

Other than the usual rhetorical flourishes – guff like “without action to counter attempts to discourage or even silence unpopular views, intellectual life on campus for both staff and students may be unfairly narrowed and diminished” – OfS is told to prepare for its new powers once (if) the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill becomes law.

Amusingly, it’s also told to use the powers it already has in this area that Jo Johnson was once selling the Higher Education and Research Act on – the requirement that providers have in place adequate and effective management and governance arrangements to deliver in practice the Public Interest Governance Principles relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

This matters because outgoing chief executive Nicola Dandridge has had a tendency to respond to accusations of inaction in this space by suggesting that OfS would need more powers. Here ministers remind OfS that it has some already, and should jolly well be using them.

Preventing and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct

Unsurprisingly ministers are pleased that work on OfS’ statement of expectations continues apace. Helpfully, here OfS gets some political cover for giving that statement some teeth – with ministers demanding that it becomes a condition of registration as soon as possible. Hopefully OfS will take that as an opportunity to review its requirements on safeguarding, EDI, and wellbeing in the round.

Admissions practices

Finally, with post qualification admissions now off the table, ministers want OfS to work with officials and sector stakeholders to consider to ensure that the student interest is placed at the centre of fair and transparent admissions practices – and that the sector avoids practices where students may feel pressured into making decisions, including through the use of conditional unconditional offers.

If we wrap in stuff like the antics of international agents and Donelan’s pronouncements on drop-out rates on adverts, it’s the sort of thing that OfS might usefully consult on. Like it started to do in February 2020, only to pandemically pause it, and then finally quietly kill it a couple of weeks ago on 18 March.

But there’s more!

Guidance on the Strategic Priorities Grant arrives under separate cover. There’s an increase of £56m in the 2022-23 financial year – making for a total additional investment in SPG of £300m recurrent and £450m capital.

More money, more problems

It is to be spent on existing priorities with a few changes. Up to £4m will be used to support Ukrainian students and other Ukrainian nationals in the sector – clearly this needs to be and is an immediate priority.

High cost subjects – those in price groups A, B, and C1.1 – will share an additional £32m (“at least”) excluding the £10m already incoming from the Department of Health and Social Care for additional medical places. Otherwise, OfS is charged with protecting funding in cash terms for price group C1.2 and all other SPG funding not mentioned in the letter. It also needs to keep back £5m to action future requests from ministers before March 2023. Degree apprenticeships are to be accelerated and expanded in the higher education sector, with OfS getting an £8m carrot to dangle in front of providers.

There’s also an extra £8m for the encouragement of L4 and L5 provision, via formula funding – all this is in preparation for the world of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. There’s a further £10m pot in 2022-23 to encourage the development of the kind of shorter skills led courses that will fuel the LLE. Nothing on demand here, you will note – these are supply side interventions only.

DfE likes what OfS has done on specialist providers – and wants to see the review completed as soon as possible to confirm the 2022-23 allocations (and the remaining £5m for 2021-22) as soon as possible. Funding for this group will then rise by up to £5m up to a maximum of £58m.

More problems, not more money

There’s an astonishing section on student hardship that argues that a DfE assessment of the probability of exceptional circumstances leading to student hardship in 2022-23 has led it to discontinue 2021-22’s miserly £5m allocation. Has nobody at DfE seen the OBR’s guesstimates on inflation? Universities, apparently, will continue to be able to support students in hardship through their own hardship funds and the student premium.

That student premium – the funding that’s supposed to help providers to help those most at risk of dropping out, is to be “protected” – which is another way of saying DfE won’t be raising it by inflation and won’t be raising it to match student numbers growth. So in reality it’s an instruction to deliver (yet) another real-terms cut in support for the most disadvantaged students.

Funding supporting student mental health will be distributed at a similar level to last year – yes, that’s another real-terms cut – and it also needs to cover the transition from school or college to university.

There’s another £10m lopped off the Uni Connect budget, now down to £30m (half the original allocation). All this is in aid of the Blake “reset” agenda, though quite how cutting something we now know works does that is not made clear.

On capital funding, OfS should prioritise short courses and degree apprenticeships – and also, pending a DfE sustainability and climate change strategy, environmental sustainability. DfE officials will work with the independent, arms-length, regulator to ensure that they get this exactly right. And a chunk of that capital can be used to support Jisc and Data Futures too.

3 responses to “OfS has a new priorities letter from ministers

  1. This summer will be a bonfire of small ‘red’ courses being closed at some large providers. WP will also take a hit as providers try to change metrics.

  2. That would too late. Remember, these are historic metrics, so it doesn’t matter what you do now, it matters what you did in the past before you knew you were going to be judged on it or that there was a problem (probably because there wasn’t one then).

    1. It is but when I talk to leaders they still plan to do it – once nearby North-West University plans to cut about a 1/3 courses which are small numbers to try and have fewer large courses.

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