Regulation doesn’t work for students at independent providers

Students at independent higher education providers don't feel seen in data-driven regulatory approaches. Sophie McCarthy makes a plea for visibility.

Sophie McCarthy is the independent student member of the Independent Higher Education board

Students at independent providers of higher education within England are almost always not in the room when meaningful and important decisions are made about them at national levels.

When I became the first student board member at Independent Higher Education (IHE), tackling this issue became a personal mission of mine on –  behalf of all the students I represent.

When I was asked by IHE to speak on a panel called Ready for the one million – regulation in an age of unprecedented demand I was nervous but excited. Somehow, despite not having the funded public speaking training most sabbatical officers receive, I delivered an opening statement that went down well with the audience.

I’ve thought long and hard about editing this statement – as presented below – further. But I stand by my words from IHE’s 2022 conference. Students are not numbers and contextual evidence must be used in deciding graduate outcomes. This is especially true for students in independent provision. It’s my hope this speech and these words are a spark which changes sector and regulatory narratives where independent students don’t matter as much simply because they are fewer in number.

The hidden students

To start things off and to put things a little bit bluntly, I think there’s a real need to consider how regulators in HE spaces can do things differently to better serve students at independent providers.

At the moment innovations in course design, course offerings, and general provision at independent providers are penalised because regulatory approaches currently used by regulators, like the OfS, are geared towards evaluating students’ graduate activities against trends from the previous ten years. Rather than the future ten years that their providers prepare them for.

Regulators, I think, have perhaps fallen into a trap of deeming graduate success a black-and-white affair. Students’ lived realities are much more contextual and grey, particularly in independent higher education spaces. And on top of that, the same students, who are subject to this regulation that doesn’t suit them or their needs, often pay more per capita for the privileges that their provider being OfS registered can bring.

Good on paper

But I think, for me, one of the most “on paper” great things about the OfS is that it aims to regulate across such a diverse market and sector with equality for all students at the helm of its latest strategic goals. In theory, from far away, we all get to live in this shiny golden palace of regulation. Until you get up close, and, depending on your view, you realise that there’s a lot more fool’s gold on this shiny golden palace than you first thought.

Somewhere along the way, a 100 per cent data-driven approach has made things too clinical and has created this false perception that OfS is (or can be) 24 carat gold value for every student across the sector.

When setting any kind of thresholds or requirements, it’s unsurprising that these are modelled on your “average” student who’s studying at your “average” traditional university. It’s easier and quicker to do things that way. And it’s also often a lot cheaper to do things that way. All because the proportion of students in higher education in the traditional sector is significantly larger than those in independent provision.

But the real cause for concern for me as a student who has studied in independent provision is there seems to be a philosophy within regulators that independent providers have to subscribe to this traditional university model. Otherwise, they’re investigated and potentially evicted from the shiny golden OfS regulatory castle altogether.

Pulling your SOCs up

The latest set of B3 conditions has really highlighted this issue. Standard Occupational Coding (SOC) codes now play a massive role in labelling graduate outcomes as successful or unsuccessful. But the issue for the independent sector, which is one of the most dynamic, innovative and futuristic sub-sectors in the higher education space, is that these are modelled on trends from the previous ten years and not the future ten years which the sector has been training its graduates to succeed in.

Traditionally speaking, the path to graduate success has been that you leave school at 18 to go to university. Stay in HE for three years. Graduate with a 2:1 or First. And then you sell your soul to the world of corporate work for the next fifty years of your life. But real employment trends, as described by the government, have shown that:

On current trends, the UK workforce in 2030 will be multi-generational, older, more international and female. Technology will be pervasive, jobs more fluid and the global labour market highly competitive.

Students in independent provision are the pioneers at the forefront of these changing industry trends. But, bafflingly to us, we are stuck paying for HE regulation which discriminates against us, solely because of the historical nature of the data sets that are applied to us and our graduate activities.

Independent realities

It is a scenario that permeates across the sector. Currently, students at Norland who study intensely and gain a degree and a diploma in their HE studies will still be classified as unsuccessful graduates. I personally would like to see anyone from OfS’s executive work successfully as Norland Nanny for 24 hours. And then go on to call them unskilled afterwards.

I’ve known students who have discontinued their studies halfway through their degree in order to accept jobs working as session musicians for number one internationally renowned touring artists. Or perhaps you could argue that a student at a London based IHE member business school who dropped out of their studies to successfully pitch on Dragons Den to start multi-million-pound businesses, and who because of this didn’t continue their studies, was classed as an unsuccessful graduate. Both these students couldn’t have achieved these levels of career success if they had remained at university until the end of their course.

A poor fit

It’s also in these scenarios that students begin to recognise that the wider system of regulation doesn’t quite fit them. Almost in the same way that you can force a puzzle piece next to another, but the picture on top doesn’t actually match up. For me personally, it isn’t necessarily just a symptom but it is endemic across regulation within the sector.

I was recently in a TEF consultation meeting before the submission timelines were altered. I kindly pointed out that no student representative would be able to submit a student submission by September. Simply because most student representatives in independent providers aren’t elected until October each year.

The response from the student engagement team:

Oh…We hadn’t thought about that…

To hear that my contact at the OfS who is supposed to be engaged with our interests, and hadn’t taken the time to engage themselves with our interests was quite a stark realisation. I think regulators need to be flexible enough to represent the diversity of all students. Not just those in traditional provision.

And it worries me greatly that if these are the experiences of students across the independent sector, then what are the experiences of students in other minority groups across England’s higher education landscape?

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