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OfS has a student information problem

With OfS now regulating at full speed, Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan wonder how prospective students would find out whether their course was approved - and just what has happened to all the old HE providers?
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Let’s have a think about the Office for Students’ initial provider registration process shall we?

For the past eighteen months or so, we’ve been in a strange limbo. As OfS was busy going through the process of registering providers, it had some of HEFCE’s old powers. And those providers and courses that had previously been designated by DfE as eligible to access the loan book would carry on – on the assumption that by the time that August 1st came, they’d have been through the process – and either would, or wouldn’t, be on the register.

Pinch punch

On August 1st OfS and the Department for Education found some time to do some sabre rattling, encouraging holiday-cover journos to repeat threats about fining providers for poor access or value for money as if it was news. The conceit was that on August 1st OfS gained all of its powers under the Higher Education and Research Act – although with great powers come great responsibilities.

In this limbo period (or “transitional period” to use the regulatory jargon), if a prospective student (or indeed an investor in a private provider, or potential partner, or potential member of staff) wanted to know if the provider they were visiting was OK, they were warmly invited to delve deep into OfS’ website where they would find a downloadable spreadsheet containing a list of providers on the register. But what if the provider in question didn’t feature on the list?

Please note that we are still in the process of registering higher education providers for 2019-20 onwards, so if a provider is not registered at the moment, no conclusions should be drawn about it based upon that fact.

Ah, OK. So what information could people have relied on?

Some higher education providers are currently regulated under transitional arrangements which also provide assurance to students. We are working through the registration applications as fast as we can, so if a provider is not registered at the moment, it might be registered soon.

Naturally, there wasn’t a list of providers that had applied and were waiting. But which providers were under these “transitional arrangements”? The website used to give a link to:

Existing regulatory data covering the period 1 April 2018 until 31 July 2019.

…that listed who was designated for student support, etc. So at least if you were a prospective student (or partner or employee) or indeed an existing student (or partner or employee) wanting to continue your studies (or partnership or employment), you could see who was designated by DfE, safe in the knowledge that a decision would come by July 31st.

Yeah, but

The trouble is, in a number of cases, that decision hasn’t come. There have been all sorts of rumours about delays to registration, which have kept getting longer in various sets of OfS board papers. One factor was staffing issues in Nicholson House. One theory is that providers have been supplying the wrong forms or misinterpreting the way in which the regulatory framework actually works. Another is that the registration team has been slow to respond to provider applications and queries. And those that have had an initial “minded to refuse letter” have doubtless been appealing, and rallying their legal troops.

We’re not going to attempt to identify blame, because it’s the students (or partners, or staff) we’re worried about today, here in early August 2019. Right now there’s (literally) hundreds of providers that haven’t appeared on the register that were previously on those DfE/HEFCE lists. Why might that be?

[Full screen]

Here nearly half of the providers listed on the old HEFCE quasi-register do not have any courses that can be found on Unistats, suggesting that they are not competing for mainstream applications. Some never did – postgraduate only and teacher training places wouldn’t ever show up. But others seem to have simply stopped offering higher education courses. Pretty much the opposite of what the register (complete with “Basic” registration) was originally designed to do.

In some cases, they’ll just have thrown in the towel, or exited the market voluntarily. There are plenty of rumours (for example) that a bunch of FE providers are considering pulling out given they’re now double-regulated and having to pay OfS for students whose courses aren’t covered by regulation. OfS would argue that their students count towards wider duties in the framework like finances and governance – but when Hadlow got into trouble, OfS simultaneously argued that since the Education and Skills Funding Agency also looked after Hadlow, it wasn’t doing much itself about it apparently passing OfS’ financial or governance registration tests.

(Hadlow, by the way, is still there on the OfS register without any registration conditions imposed – this despite the fact that DfE had been providing exceptional financial support to cover running costs for months, and eventually took the decision to petition the High Court to place the college into educational administration earlier this year. You’d never guess from the OfS website).

Some of the missing providers were “school-centred initial teacher training” providers which are looked after elsewhere. Some will have switched from being validated by another provider to delivering on the basis of franchising – for which they presumably get to keep less income in exchange for avoiding OfS registration and regulation altogether. Mike Ratcliffe has looked at this leaky bucket for us before.

But in a number of cases, missing providers will be those that have applied and haven’t had a decision by the end of July. Some will be challenging initial “minded to refuse” letters, but some will just be waiting. And that creates a major problem.

Apply now! Clearing 2019!

Over the past few days we’ve found all sorts of courses – still being advertised to students for September starts – that claim student finance is available when technically as of now it’s not. If you’re a continuing student and you were aware you might not be able to draw down a loan next year that would be terrifying. And if you’re a potential or current partner or staff member, not knowing whether the student loan tap is about to be abruptly turned off, that would be terrifying too. But you’d never know from the information we’ve seen on a host of provider websites.

Maybe the Office for Students can help? Don’t count on it. Remember that page that at least told you who’d previously been designated “under transitional arrangements which also provide assurance to students”? Well, as well as finding the time to sabre rattle about its new powers, OfS also found the time to edit those webpages, which now read:

Regulatory data for providers regulated under transitional arrangements was previously published on this page. As the transitional regulatory arrangements are no longer in effect this data is no longer maintained or published”.

We have heard that OfS (or maybe DfE) has a policy called “Limited designation” which covers continuing students and is available to providers who have not yet had a decision. But a search for the phrase “Limited designation” provides no hits. And a google crawl of that phrase doesn’t turn anything up either. So neither we, nor students, nor partners nor staff know who that applies to or if, indeed, it even exists as a real “thing”.

Where else could our students (or partners, or employees) be looking. Well, how about Unistats? Sam Gyimah’s intense agitation against the student information service resulted in the gestation of a replacement – to be called “Discover Uni”. Sadly, it will rely on the current data set which – as well as prematurely ageing DK as he fights with it over the summer – does not include information on fee loan eligibility or who actually awards the qualification being studied towards.

You’ll be delighted to learn from Unistats that there are places available at GSM London to start in September 2019. If you want to know who validates the award you are studying for (it’s the University of Plymouth) – good luck, the information isn’t shown. You can get that important knowledge from UCAS, but neither UCAS nor Unistats will tell you whether you’re eligible for a fee loan, which strikes us as fairly fundamental information. You end up clicking round the Student Loans Company site (now on gov uk), which ends up here – where GSM are present and correct as a “listed body”.

Silence ain’t golden

This really won’t do. Taxpayers have a right to know who subsidised loans are going to. Potential students, staff and partners need to know what, if any assurance is available on the provider they might be working with or studying at. Continuing students, staff and partners really need to know whether the loan book is about to be removed, likely triggering their provider’s collapse (which might well have been the nail in the GSM coffin). And is it too much to ask for information to be consistent, up to date and reliable?

Maybe the theory is that telling people what’s going on would be dangerous and trigger worry. But our hunch is that silence is the absolute worst thing the Office for Students can be maintaining right now – and that the misery facing GSM’s students and staff could be just the tip of a huge, miserable iceberg.

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