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.