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Can OfS fix its relationship with the higher education sector?

The English HE regulator has sought feedback from the sector – and it’s far from glowing. Michael Salmon wonders whether better engagement will be enough to mend the relationship
This article is more than 1 year old

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Back in June and July 2022, 32 interviews were conducted by an independent research agency on behalf of the Office for Students with accountable officers (AOs) – university staff whose job it is to liaise with OfS – and their representatives. And according to the report the takeaways were pretty negative. OfS chief executive Susan Lapworth is now seeking to “refresh” the regulator’s engagement with providers.

On the one hand, OfS never set out to make friends. From its inception it has been clear that it wants to avoid “sector capture” and remain independent of those it regulates. But based on this feedback, it may have gone too far the other way and need to correct course.

There’s good news, and there’s bad news

The report helpfully sets out both the positives and the negatives – though some of the positives don’t feel like full-blooded endorsements:

Providers value personalised communications and would appreciate a more informal and collegiate tone.

Providers would like AO mailings sent to a wider number of recipients within their provider.

Although valued as a channel to lend the provider voice, providers wanted consultations to be spaced and simplified.

On the negative side…

A majority of those interviewed see OfS as “seeking conflict with all providers”, “unnecessarily tough”, running “technocratic and unnecessary processes”, and generally not communicating well.

University representatives “displayed some nostalgia for HEFCE’s ways of working.” Those from FE colleges “noted elements of OfS’s approach that did not work well with their context and system,” and some felt it was easy for OfS to ignore them. Larger universities took umbrage at being treated as if “OfS expected them to fail.” Smaller providers felt like OfS was geared towards larger institutions.

Interviewees raised the bad blood created by frequent consultations, with low confidence that OfS is willing to make changes in light of consultation responses. One provider “noted that concurrent consultations could sometimes contradict each other.”

There was also a “widely held belief that the OfS operated too closely to government, serving too directly and being too reactive to the government agenda” – phrases like “knee-jerk reaction” and “immature regulator” appear here.

We’re sorry if you felt offended

Shift Learning, the agency OfS commissioned to do the research, offers some potential actions as part of the report – though the focus is more on communication than on material change to the way the regulator goes about its business.

Certainly it would be surprising if small and specialist providers’ criticisms of OfS last autumn will be assuaged by the regulator “making communications accessible to all providers, particularly smaller and specialist providers” through highlighting key points and simplifying language.

In an accompanying blog post to the report, Susan Lapworth sets out how OfS will respond, very much framed around how OfS communicates and engages, rather than establishing a broader, collaborative relationship (which by the way was another area of criticism, with providers wanting a collaborative approach on student outcomes).

So the sector should now look out for careful consideration of consultation lengths, regular online sessions for AOs, “better promotion of existing contact routes for institutions,” and further improvements to the OfS website, including an organogram, as feedback suggested a level of opacity to who does what inside the regulator.

OfS is also coming to visit – but without its hobnail boots on – promising

a series of scheduled visits to institutions for senior staff with opportunities for interested OfS board members to join visits where appropriate. We believe these visits – spread across the range of different institutions and across England – can help improve mutual understanding.

And while there’s nothing on how OfS will act to dispel the view that it lacks independence from government – Lapworth promises to “consider all the recommendations” – you can be sure Conservative peer and OfS chair James Wharton will be giving it some careful thought.

2 responses to “Can OfS fix its relationship with the higher education sector?

  1. Louise Richardson’s parting speech as Oxford V-C summed up for myself, and others I suspect, the value of OFS to the sector. The report to which this piece refers clarifies the sector’s view cogently.

  2. The blog follows Susan Lapworth’s now traditional approach of apologising for the fact that the sector doesn’t understand the OfS, and promising to try and explain more clearly why everything they do is excellent, while not engaging with any substantive criticisms or issues. Coming across, as always, as someone very much untroubled by doubt.

    The blog also comes with the function to comment but, as always, even mildly critical comments are not published (which is perhaps why the blogs never have any comments on them).

    There are, as the article gently implies, no obvious signs that anything is going to get any better.

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