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Registration time at OfS

Has the OfS approach to registering providers worked? Mike Ratcliffe examines the evidence
This article is more than 1 year old

Mike Ratcliffe is a higher education historian and career academic administrator

At the heart of the way that the Office for Students regulates the HE sector in England is its register.

Gaining entry to the register requires providers to demonstrate certain qualities and to adhere to certain behaviors. The system of conditions is predicated on the register and the ultimate sanctions are linked to it.

The 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) means that you can’t be a university or award degrees in England without being on the register (the exception being branches of universities from other countries). So it is great to see new operational data from OfS about the registration process.

Who’s on, who’s off?

I’ve been tracking the register right from the start. I was interested that the way the register was presented was in a spreadsheet, together with a counter on the website. It’s not always been easy to spot when the register changes, so I started a thread on twitter. On the 14 November 2018 OfS confirmed 12 new providers had joined the register which brought the total to 194. Today the number stands at 409.

As initial registration was clearly an important part of what OfS was doing, the CEO presented data in her report to each board meeting. As these are published (with redactions for any individual provider data) you could keep a track of the number of applications and start to see a gap opening up between the fast track initial registrations of providers that had previously been funded by HEFCE and/or who had a report of QAA audits and new providers.

As the student visa route was linked to the OfS register, providers who were sponsoring students but weren’t publicly funded were told to apply. However they were given a completely unrealistic timescale – such that the UKVI had to maintain a provisional status for those waiting registration. After a while it was decided that the OfS Board didn’t need the ongoing registration data, and it was dropped from the CEO’s report.

We still don’t always know

However, concerns about the registration process have continued. New providers that have gone through it have complained about the process and particularly the time it takes. In the business case for a new provider the set-up phase is a risk – if that gets longer because of the OfS registration process then only those providers with deep pockets can achieve it. We’ve not seen the burst of new providers that clearly motivated ministers in 2016.

So, the publication of operational data by OfS on registrations is really welcome. We have a full longitudinal picture of the number of applications received and resolved each quarter alongside the number that remain open. The picture in the graph tells the story we know – a huge burst of applications at the start of the process, followed two quarters later by resolutions (mostly registrations).

However, it also confirms the story of the length of time it is taking. OfS stopped taking new registrations in the pandemic. At that quarter (Q2 2020) it had 114 open cases. In the subsequent quarters 72 have been resolved – so 42 must still be open that were received over two years earlier. OfS say:

At the end of the second quarter of 2022, we held 86 unresolved registration applications. In a significant number of these cases, providers have submitted incomplete applications and have not responded quickly to our follow-up requests for information. Registration applications have also been delayed while we await assessments from the designated quality body about the quality and standards of courses at individual providers.

Through the mist

It’s absolutely the case that the process must be rigorous but this is clearly an issue. Unlike the notifications measure, we are not given a resolution time. OfS resolved 45 registration applications in 2021 and the first half of 2022. By my reckoning, there have been 15 new registrations announced since the start of 2021. This number contains five new registrations for the constituent parts of the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama which traded in its one registration. I can only see one refusal to register recorded since 2021 (not all the published cases have dates) which means the majority of the resolutions neither ended in registration or refusal – presumably either the potential provider withdrew from the process or they are appealing against a refusal.

We are seeing the impact of a wave of mergers in the FEC section feeding through to the register. At one stage the merged Peterborough/Stamford FEC had three separate entries on the register. OfS record the de-registrations – but these are now equalling the new registrations. The counter now stands at 409, the same as it did on 23 October 2020 when three new providers joined the register.

It may be that post-legislative scrutiny of HERA looks into whether the registration process has helped or hindered bringing in new providers. It may be that the length of time it takes means that more new providers are taking a route through franchising or validation first – with further concerns about how regulation reaches that part of the sector. Clearly OfS are keeping an eye on this, and I certainly welcome this new data.

5 responses to “Registration time at OfS

  1. OfS introduced an entirely new set of rules in 2018 and this did result in some delays:

    1. Some colleges did not get onto the register until 12 months after their application in summer 2018. This required SLC to hold some 2019-20 student finance applications in summer 2019 pending confirmation of OFS decisions, a few of which did not come until July 2019.

    2. It took many months for OfS to process the first de-registration applications received in 2020 and 2021.

    3. There have only been a few college mergers since summer 2019 but there have been delays in reflecting these changes on the register.

    Hopefully these issues are historical implementation problems but it is not easy to introduce an entirely new registration system in a relatively short period of time.

    1. Julian I agree that the de-registration process after merger seemed to take a while. That’s a process that seems to have got quicker. For this piece I was mostly interested in the way this has ‘netted-off’ any growth in new providers over the last two years.

  2. A good piece, Mike – thanks.

    My experience of working with providers applying for registration (six so far, five registered successfully, one still in process) is that OfS isn’t proactively keeping applicants in touch with what the current status is of their application. It’s not just the time it takes, it’s the uncertainty and unpredictability of next steps (there’s only so long that you can be ready and waiting for a QSR which might come this month or next year).

    Domino’s Pizza gives you a tracker showing whether your pizza’s in the oven yet; Deliveroo gives a map to see where your dinner is when in transit. OfS has nothing similar. Individual OfS staff are great and as helpful as they can be, but it’s a black-box of a process and a little more light would help no end.

    1. Thanks Hugh. In 2016 ministers said it was existing providers stopping new institutions (happy analogies about burgers, bouncers etc). We need much more provision, it’s a worry if the process is putting people off.

  3. Thanks, Mike. A great article. The stated purpose of HERA (enacted in 2017) was to increase competition, encourage new entrants, increase choice and improve value for money for students. While we didn’t expect a pandemic to hit, so far, it has failed on all four counts. It didn’t help that we had to wait until 2018 for the OfS to publish the new regulatory framework. The backlog of existing providers getting on to the register appears to have only just resolved itself earlier this year but in the meantime some organisations have not been able to recruit students for two years or more.

    While it is important that stringent checks are conducted before permitting organisations to join the register, there are still continuing barriers to entry and running an English HEI is not seen as an attractive proposition. I am aware of a number of organisations who have chosen to only deliver franchise provision (which means they do not need to register) or are considering opening a new institution in Scotland rather than England.

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