OfS sets off in a new direction with new guidance and a new chair

Gavin Williamson has a fresh set of priorities for the Office for Students. David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson read between the lines.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe


Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Gavin Williamson is keen to give further guidance to the Office for Students (OfS) ahead of chair-elect James Wharton’s start date in April.

Those of you with longer memories will recall that the Secretary of State wrote to the OfS a little more than a week ago on hardship funding, and on funding on 19 January. So this letter can be seen as containing information that he inadvertently forgot to mention in the two other letters from his department this calendar year, or the two in the last quarter of 2020. Never has a regulator been more favoured with guidance.

In case you’re counting, as we know many of our readers do, this one weighs in at 3,279 words – about 1,000 words longer than the last letter of this type just before the 2019 General Election (although that was in and of itself the third strategy missive that year).

Despite Williamson’s keenness to put pen to paper, much of what is here could be characterised on the surface as “steady as she goes”. He’s a fan of the regulator’s quality consultation proposals, wants OfS to get stuck in on mental health support, and likes the idea (if not, perhaps, the practice) of risk-based regulation.

But dig a bit deeper and you can taste the tension – moments where the department’s frustration with its regulator comes to the surface. There are several urges at direction change here – and even we don’t get screeching turns, DfE will be hoping that progress on some of its priorities speeds up now that Lord Wharton of Yarm has been confirmed in post.

Near the beginning of the letter, Williamson is keen to stress that it replaces all previous strategic guidance – and so as well as looking at what’s new in here, we’ve kept an eye on the things OfS has previously been asked to focus on that it seemingly never got around to.

Freedom from, freedom to

The first big bit of news is on free speech on campus, that clear priority during a pandemic. The SoS declaims:

I intend to publish a policy paper on free speech and academic freedom in the near future and I would like the OfS to continue to work closely with the Department to deliver this shared agenda and ensure our work is closely aligned.

Although he greatly enjoyed Michael Barber’s recent speech on the issue, he feels:

…to date there has been little regulatory action taken by the OfS in relation to potential breaches of the registration conditions relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom, despite a significant number of concerning incidents reported since the full suite of its regulatory powers came into force.

In general that presents a real challenge for our new chair – you can rarely get a comment out of OfS about an individual provider on anything, let alone the sorts of blown up free speech “incidents” that find their way into the press.

Crucially, OfS’ regulatory framework doesn’t really set it up to act in the sort of incident-intervention-adjudication way described both here and in the rumoured 11-line free speech bill that was floating around Whitehall a while ago – so Wharton may quickly find himself caught uncomfortably between evidence and ideology.

In a particularly mind-blowing highlight, Williamson finds a way to wade in without wading in to the row surrounding course reconfiguration and decolonisation at Leicester – by threatening to encroach upon institutional autonomy in the name of institutional autonomy:

While providers are rightly free to determine the content of their courses, university administrators and heads of faculty should not, whether for ideological reasons or to conform to the perceived desires of students, pressure or force teaching staff to drop authors or texts that add rigour and stretch to a course. The OfS should robustly challenge providers that have implemented such policies and clearly support individual academics whose academic freedom is being diminished.

Perhaps wisely, there’s a carefully separated section on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism – here he’s rather cheekily gifted OfS with a “scoping exercise” to identify providers which are reluctant to adopt the definition and asks OfS to consider introducing “mandatory reporting of antisemitic incident numbers by providers”.

If only OfS had some sort of harassment consultation set up that work like this could fit into. Back in 2019 he’d asked that action be taken on “harassment, racial abuse, antisemitism and other forms of intolerance and prejudice” – a consultation on sexual harassment and misconduct was launched in January 2020, paused two months later and has never restarted.

Pandemic

Back in September 2019, Williamson was dead keen to see OfS progress work on empowered consumers:

Students must be able to apply to university in the knowledge that what they are being promised will be delivered. They must be able to make their choices based on clear, comparable, and relevant information about what is being offered — and have contractual terms and conditions that are fair, as well as clear and transparent. And students must be able to access transparent and effective complaints processes when their consumer rights are not met.

Seventeen months on, the pandemic presents a danger – that the considerable costs of students’ rights not being met and promises not being delivered might flow back to the department. So there’s naturally less talk on consumers – instead he would like OfS to “continue” to “monitor” what’s going on “closely” and to take swift action where it is clear that quality and academic standards have dropped.

I would like the OfS to communicate the findings from their monitoring work” [wouldn’t we all Gav] “and ensure students are aware of the notification process that they can follow to raise any issues” [because if they don’t, how would OfS know what’s going on at all?]

I do appreciate you being ’round

This theme of supporting the work of the department is a common one. OfS will be chipping in on the design and implementation of the proposed lifelong loan entitlement, reforms to higher technical qualifications, and work on credit transfer and accumulation.

What’s delightful about that last one is that back in September DfE instructed OfS to take no further regulatory action on student transfer arrangements – and what is credit transfer but a student transfer arrangement with knobs on?

Williamson hasn’t entirely forgotten that paper, however. The NSS review is still a priority, but he:

…would like the OfS to take the time it needs to ensure this review is genuinely radical, consider carefully whether there could be a replacement that does not depend on a universal annual sample, and ensure that a replacement does not contribute to the reduction in rigour and standards. It is my strong view that the NSS should play at most a minimal role in baseline quality regulation.

The first phase of the review was due at the end of last year, so this is a nice moment for DfE to encourage OfS not to worry about deadlines.

Back in September 2019, he also asked that OfS take steps to “ensure international students feel integrated on campus”, were supported “in terms of their mental health and wellbeing” and to ensure that international students “receive the employability skills they need” to be supported into employment – either in their home country or the UK.

That’s all conspicuous by its absence here – as is the call from 2019 for “public, transparent data on the outcomes” achieved by international students, and work he wanted on “harmful student recruitment practices” aimed at international students, presumably by arm’s length agents. It’s replaced with references to the International Education Strategy, and  warnings about overdependence on income from a single source and security-related issues, which OfS will doubtless shoehorn into its E conditions:

I would like the OfS to monitor the adoption of these recommendations by providers and continue to support the sector to manage these risks to the reputation, integrity and sustainability of individual institutions, as well as to the sector as a whole.

Opportunity or outcomes?

There’s a particularly interesting passage in the letter that builds on themes in that Michelle Donelan speech from last summer. “I would like to remind the OfS that it has a statutory duty to have regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome” is a sentence with a particular flavour (and worthy of a series of blogs all on its own), but to really ram the point home he then refers the regulator to Liz Truss:

OfS should be guided by the approach to equality of opportunity set out by the Minister for Women and Equalities in her speech of 17 December, one that is rooted in liberty, agency, and fairness. The OfS should reflect upon the extent to which its policies and procedures are aligned with this approach as it plans its future activity.

That was the speech that famously referenced Foucault until the offending section was pulled – and also saw Truss reflecting on her schooling at a comprehensive in Leeds in the 1980s:

I was struck by the lip service that was paid to equality by the City Council while children from disadvantaged backgrounds were let down. While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write.

Truss mentions PQA in that speech – back in 2019 Williamson “welcomed” OfS’ review into admissions, but these days he just wants OfS to support his review by developing the evidence base and helping out with implementation options during and after consultation:

We want to ensure that any move to post qualification admissions genuinely improves the prospects of disadvantaged students and, in particular, facilitates greater numbers of them accessing the most selective universities.

Danger danger

On risk based regulation, there’s a feeling that OfS has not been sufficiently risk-based so far. This time there’s no soft deadline – appreciable change in less than 12 months (or in 24 guidance letters’ time) for “high quality providers”. Maybe ministers will issue a Provider Satisfaction Survey.

In another stroke of magisterial masculinity Williamson also wants to change the name of the Teaching Grant to the Strategic Priorities Grant – a funding stream he literally wrote to OfS about using the former terminology last week.

But on low quality courses, there’s a line of easy-to-miss tough talk that ought to alarm parts of the sector if it hasn’t already. Once those student outcomes baselines are set at subject level, OfS is told to use the full range of its powers and sanctions where quality of provision is not high enough.

In what amounts to a mini-response to the OfS quality and standards consultation, the regulator is told to “not limit itself” to gentle nudges like conditions of registration requiring improvement, but instead should move “immediately” to more robust measures – monetary penalties, suspending aspects of a provider’s registration, deregistration or even:

the revocation of degree awarding powers in subjects of concern”.

We’re not automatically convinced that’s even possible under OfS’ current powers – but if it is, the prospect of losing DAPs at subject level is a fascinating potential new threat that we don’t recall seeing in OfS’ consultation. As ever, it’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.

2 responses to “OfS sets off in a new direction with new guidance and a new chair

  1. Just as with the quality consultation, it is tempting to see this as an attempt to prune the sector back to pre-92 levels in both scope and size. For all the talk of a market, it evidently hasn’t delivered the sort of sector they wanted, so now they seem intent on shaping it themselves, seemingly regardless of whether there is student demand for those subjects or whether the subjects they dislike are objectively ‘low quality’ (something the OfS consultation, if implemented, would conspicuously fail to identify).

  2. Does the focus on equal of opportunity, rather than equal of outcome have implications for Access and Participation? (Where a lot of focus is on outcomes).
    The letter also sets OfS to have another think about what other burdens should be reduced…

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