As we approach the end of the academic year it is only natural to look back on the year just gone.
For those of us working in London’s higher education sector, the month ahead is a particularly pertinent one, as it marks the one-year anniversary since the Office for Students (OfS) confirmed that London weighting would be removed from the capital’s higher education institutions with immediate effect from the 2021-22 funding year.
Don’t blame us, blame DfE
This decision was made following a brief consultation period, during which more than 50 per cent of the responses received by the OfS were acknowledged to be “critical of the proposal to remove the London weighting” (p.51). Included in these responses was our own robust, evidence-based submission, which drew on original analysis showing the removal of the London Weighting would force several institutions in the capital into a precarious financial situation – and that was even before the current cost of living crisis had reared its ugly head.
When announcing the decision, the more astute of you would have noticed that the OfS did not offer its wholehearted support for the Government’s proposal. On page 56 of the report on the consultation outcomes, the OfS boldly rebutted claims from providers outside London that their operating costs are just as high as those in the capital. It stated that, while there are indeed “other regional cost variations and different factors that contribute to them… evidence from recent studies does not suggest those costs are as high as in London”
But just when we thought that there might be a chance that the regulator would rule in favour of keeping London weighting, the OfS coyly explained that:
the terms and conditions of grant placed on us by the Secretary of State preclude us from varying rates of grant on the basis of any regional location, not just in London, and therefore we will not do so.
Carry that weight
So, what we saw last July was the regulator effectively acknowledging the injustices of removing the London weighting but explaining that it was going to have to proceed with the decision anyway because the ideology behind the policy simply trumped the evidence.
One year on and the publication of the OfS’s annual reports and accounts perhaps goes some way to explain the regular’s reticence and restraint at the time in confirming the removal of the London weighting – for, hidden right at the bottom of page 112 of the report, as part of the analysis of staff costs and pension costs, is a disclaimer that OfS staff salary includes “reserved rights to London weighting or London allowances”.
While this is not surprising for an organisation that employs staff in a London location, it does smack a little of hypocrisy from a regulator that not only ruled in favour of taking the London weighting away from all registered providers in the capital last summer, but is responsible for the financial sustainability of registered providers and understands full well their ongoing obligations to pay London weighting to their staff.
Questions must therefore be asked urgently as to why the OfS gets “reserved rights” to the London weighting when the sector which it regulates does not – particularly when its own staff income comes from public funding allocations.
What is for sure is that this latest revelation from the OfS does not help the regulator with its claim to be upholding quality and standards in the English higher education sector. Rather, it appears to be an organisation that is espousing double standards. It clearly costs OfS more to employ staff in London – why doesn’t this apply to the sector it regulates?