David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

I know many in the sector are saving this one up to watch the whole boxed set in one sitting.

It’s not every day, to be fair, we get a full and detailed inquiry into the work of the Office for Students. The fact it is led by a committee with significant expertise in the theory and practice of regulation makes it even more tantalising a prospect.

For that reason, here’s a list of links to transcripts and videos – and for those who don’t mind spoilers I’ll summarise key themes immediately below.

  • 3 March: Inquiry announced [Wonkhe coverage]
  • 7 March (video): Nicola Dandridge (former OfS CEO), Michael Barber (former OfS Chair)
  • 14 March(video): Jo Johnson (former universities minister), Charles Clarke [Wonkhe coverage]
  • 21 March (video): Susan Lea (former Hull vice chancellor), David Eastwood (former Birmingham vice chancellor), Nancy Rothwell (Manchester vice chancellor), Neal Juster (Lincoln vice chancellor) [Wonkhe coverage]
  • 28 March (video): Vanessa Wilson (University Alliance), Vivienne Stern (UUK), Rachel Hewitt (M+), Alex Proudfoot (IHE)
  • 18 April (video): Chloe Field (NUS), Martha Longdon (former student OfS board member), Francesco Masala (former OfS student panel member) [Wonkhe coverage]
  • 25 April (video): Anthony McLaran (GuildHE), Vicki Stott, Simon Gaskell (QAA)
  • 2 May (video): Nicola Owen (AHUA), Erica Conway (BUFDG)
  • 9 May (video): Susan Lapworth, James Wharton (OfS) [Wonkhe coverage]
  • 16 May (video): Robert Halfon (DfE)

And we also have the written evidence (and extra written evidence from OfS)

If you don’t want spoilers stop reading here.

A fitter, happier, regulator?

Evidence given in these hearings (we excitedly await the publication of the written evidence, having heard it referred to in later sessions) did not paint a picture of the Office for Students as a happy regulator. It was striking to hear former chief executive Nicola Dandridge describe all those letters from ministers as “overly prescriptive”, and the story of the battle behind the scenes to save the National Student Survey was instructive, if only because a little more publicity from the regulator about this would have done a lot of reputational good.

Indeed, there was an overriding consensus that the gap between ministers and the regulators was not a wide one – and the volume of interventions may have the potential (as Charles Clarke noted) to deliver an ostensible student interest better described as a fiction created in Whitehall and on Tufton Street.

Certainly the “light touch” benefits of risk-based regulation have been, in the words of David Eastwood, “a promise not fully delivered”. Regulatory burden and – given the rumours of a 13-15 per cent rise in registration fees – regulatory costs were brought up many times, particularly by witnesses from the sector. While the cost issue is not a large one in the grand scheme of sector finance, comparing this proposed growth to the declining unit of resource is uncomfortable.

The actions of the regulator have been perceived as bureaucratic and heavy-handed, with several instances recorded of OfS being very reluctant to take on sector advice, and finding it very difficult to roll back edicts that were clearly not working. There was some hope expressed that a mature regulator could reset this often fractious relationship.

Just chilling

A key story to emerge was the way in which the authentic student voice, in the form of the student panel and student board members, was undermined and even suppressed, according to reports from former members of the panel Martha Longden and Francesco Masala. One cited incident was the threat of a “review” of the panel from a senior OfS member if students did not toe the party line on decolonising curricula. Student witnesses also impressed on the committee that their interests – support with the cost of living, mental health, student rights – varied sharply from ministerial interests (spelling and grammar, ever more baroque measures to protect a conceptualisation of “freedom of speech”).

Sessions frequently touched on the demission of the QAA from the designated quality body role – a decision made because of an incompatibility between OfS requirements and the need to remain compliant with international standards. Had the decision been presented in these terms it would merely have been a criticism of OfS’ approach to quality – instead, a bizarre regulatory intervention saw underlying sector politics made public. It’s not clear why OfS can’t use student reviewers – the idea of “insufficient expertise” doesn’t really wash – and the whole saga puts a series of regulatory decisions (were some decisions not to register a provider made based on reports that OfS now describe as “not fit for purpose”?) in question. As Lord Burns said – this is “a very puzzling and unfortunate state of affairs.”

Though the committee had a nominal interest in sector finances – and the early hardline statements against bailouts came in for some criticism – most of these conversations butted on the determination of OfS to avoid being HEFCE while still taking account of the student interest – the remainder were dominated by Lord Agnew continually asking the same questions.

A chance to respond?

The committee’s work ends with a report, not the chance for the regulator or its sponsoring minister to respond to criticisms in committee. Though both OfS and DfE will be likely to respond in writing to the report and recommendations when they are published.

Certainly when Susan Lapworth and James Wharton appeared last week they could not have been said to fully address what the committee had already heard. Far from reassuring peers that the student panel had not been threatened with a “review”, they announced that a review was currently taking place. It’s entirely possible that this could result in an expansion of the panel’s reach – Lapworth talked about retrofitting “tentacles can reach into the sector” but it is not great optics only to offer that the panel has worked “reasonably” well when everyone is thinking about that previous threat.

Likewise, James Wharton faced an open goal – he could simply have resigned the government whip (he never turns up to the Lords anyway…), forsworn the curious list of donations to conservative politicians made by companies he is a director of, and dodged many pertinent questions about independence. Instead he doubled down – even though it is customary for chairs of independent bodies to resign political affiliations, the extent of his defence for not complying with this custom was that he had “chosen not to”.

There was a lot of doubling down. Despite what the committee have heard relations with the sector are generally “good”, the OfS was entirely justified in the way it has treated the QAA as designated quality body, and the legislation makes it clear OfS can do the DQB itself with no problems.

For people who have read regulatory consultation responses this is familiar ground. The OfS is confident it is correct, happy to cite the letter of the law to back this up, and to explain in detail how everyone else is wrong. This mood hasn’t washed with the sector, and doesn’t really show many signs of impressing peers either.

Next steps

Minister Robert Halfon takes the stand on 16 May (Jim wrote it up for Wonkhe with an eye on the finance questions). We got a preview of how the minister sees common criticisms of OfS in a Westminster Hall debate recently – committee members will have that transcript in front of them and will be unafraid to push further. It was notable, for instance, that although Halfon did his ministerial duty in supporting his own arms-length body, he was keen to agree that there was “too much regulation”.  And it was very interesting that he would not be drawn on the issues around James Wharton’s conduct.

We should then see the publication of the submitted written evidence – I hear the OfS submission is a highlight – as clerks and members begin the drafting process that will allow them to detail their findings in a formal report. I’d expect this to arrive, laid before both Houses of Parliament, in the summer.

Departments and arms-length bodies take reports from committees seriously. It requires more than the blanket dismissal other complaints often yield – each recommendation will get a response, and members of both houses will be keen to push for action. Though anyone hoping for a full dismantling of the Office for Students will be disappointed you could imagine recommendations about communications, student engagement, political independence, and possibly even quality assurance making for a significant change. Regulation in England may change again.

2 responses to “Previously at the Industry and Regulators Committee

  1. Yes, the doubling down of the OfS high command might not be unexpected given past form, but it’s still interesting. Would be interesting to see a piece probing why OfS feels so confident in doing this given the extent and depth of the criticisms of its work.

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