OfS will tackle pockets of low quality higher education provision

Nick Holland, Competition and Registration Manager at the Office for Students introduces new proposals on poor quality courses.

Students invest significant time and money in their studies, and are right to expect a course that is well taught and intellectually stimulating.

That is why the Office for Students (OfS), England’s independent higher education regulator, is launching a consultation today which will help raise quality at our universities, colleges and other higher education providers.

We are seeking the views of students and their representatives to help ensure that the policy changes made following the consultation are effective in raising the quality bar. The insights will help the OfS to shape our approach to quality and effectively protect the interests of students whatever, wherever and however they study.

While we had planned to consult on our approach to quality and standards in any case, we will of course draw on our experience of regulating through the pandemic in our future regulation of quality and standards.

The OfS has always been able to hold universities and other higher education providers to account for the quality of their courses and the standard of qualifications they award. But these proposals would sharpen our regulatory requirements, raise expectations for quality and student outcomes, and allow us to take action where there are poor quality courses at providers in particular subject areas.

Quality and standards

First, we’re suggesting new, clearer, definitions of “quality” and “standards”. These definitions cover a range of issues, including access and admissions, the content and delivery of courses and the provision of effective resources and academic support.

Also included are secure standards – so students can be assured that their degree will stand the test of time – and successful outcomes. Subject to consideration of responses to the consultation, we would be looking to use these definitions as part of our regulation – underpinning the baselines we set which all providers must meet in order to be, and remain, registered with us.

Crucially, we are also saying that all higher education providers must provide quality for all groups of students. That means two things. First, if we are worried that certain groups of students are being adversely affected, we can swiftly intervene. Second, we are saying – unequivocally – that is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes.

Doing so creates a skewed playing field, where poor performance for disadvantaged students is effectively allowed. That is untenable, and unfair to those students who have often overcome the odds to enter higher education. Obstacles to attainment for these groups need to be removed and not hidden behind.

The plans also allow us to intervene at a subject level if we have concerns. This intervention really matters. Most universities and other higher education providers offer high quality higher education across the board.

But at some providers, we have been concerned about pockets of low quality provision. Being able to intervene at subject level will make a real difference. As well as assessing data on student outcomes we will also continue to welcome notifications from students alerting us to issues and concerns about the quality of their course.

Toughening up

Ensuring students have every opportunity to achieve successful outcomes on their courses remains an important OfS priority. That is why we are focusing on the number of students who progress to the end of their course and go on to managerial and professional employment or higher-level study. We are proposing to update – and toughen – our requirements for the minimum performance we would expect from any university or other higher education provider.

Deciding on the numerical values for these minimum baselines will take time and be subject to further consultation, but we will have higher expectations for providers for all of their students. We are ready to use all of our enforcement powers, where necessary, to help maintain the excellent reputation that English higher education warrants.

These are important proposals, which will help to properly protect students. Please do take the time to have your say in the consultation, which runs from today until January 12.

2 responses to “OfS will tackle pockets of low quality higher education provision

  1. The massive problem with absolute thresholds is that it will incentivise universities to cream-skim even more than they already do and to not take a chance on someone from a non-traditional background who – say – has a 50:50 chance or even a 75:25 chance of succeeding or – due to well-documented geographic immobility, discrimination, lack of resources to be an unpaid intern or have a period of low pay in London, and the role of social and cultural capital in the labour market – someone who may struggle to find a professional job in their chosen field compared to an Old Etonian.

    What measures do the OfS propose to prevent this? It sounds like a big risk to the access and participation agenda as universities will be dissuaded from taking on disadvantaged students for whom higher education can be most transformative meaning those from less traditional backgrounds will be denied the opportunities which a degree can open up for them. Or is the judgement that a 75% chance of success isn’t high enough to warrant giving someone a shot at it or that barriers to social mobility in the labour market mean it’s pointless educating working-class kids to degree level?

    There are surely other policy measures that can achieve the outcomes which OfS wants to achieve which do not have these negative effects on social mobility. One (admittedly half-baked) idea: student debt cancellation for all students who drop out without enough credit to achieve a qualification funded by universities combined with a far higher student premium for non-traditional students to avoid disincentivising universities from taking a chance on such students where they have a decent chance of success

    1. See also today’s ad hoc statistical report from OfS itself describing lower continuation and attainment rates by students who are estranged from their parents, from households with lower incomes, with care experience, etc. What incentives do absolute thresholds create with respect to recruiting those kinds of students?

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