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Regulatory Framework 2.0 – What you need to know

There's a lot to digest in today's regulatory smorgasbord. Catherine Boyd has put together a tasting menu of the choicest morsels for your delectation.
This article is more than 6 years old

Catherine is a former Executive Officer at Wonkhe.

With 16 documents (not including multiple annexes) published across the websites of the Office for Students and the Department for Education, there’s plenty for wonks to delve into. Here are some key headlines to guide you on your way.

A basic decency?

The “Basic” category of the register had always presented risk, as Wonkhe’s David Kernohan previously outlined. The sector and OfS now agree, with the regulator concluding that “the Registered (basic) category, as set out in the consultation, carries more risk to students than benefit”. Giving these organisations the imprimatur of “OfS registered” had the potential to mislead students into thinking the institutions are subject to more rigorous regulation than would have been the case.

But, rather than tackle this thorny issue and actually regulate these providers, OfS has scrapped the category altogether. Students who enrol at those institutions do so entirely at their own risk. It’s possible that the absence of a provider’s name on the register will be a signal that the student will bear more risk by signing up, but this is a long way from OfS’s professed aim of improving information for students.

In essence, OfS can’t properly protect students at Basic-level institutions so it isn’t even going to try and bring those providers within its regulatory ambit.

Licence to print money

With no basic category in the registration fee, the Department for Education was always going to have to rethink the subscription model. Furthermore, after Wonkhe exposed that the maths didn’t add up, more money had to be found to run OfS. Consequently, the new model has:

  • Narrower fee bands which start at a lower price (a bargain £10,400 per year for a provider with 25 or fewer students)
  • Increased the top fee to £158,200, for providers with more than 20,000 students, an increase over almost £30,000 per year from the original proposal
  • Changed the percentage increase between each band to be approximately 25% more at each step

These are major changes from the original consultation which will disproportionately impact medium-sized providers. However, the final fees will need to go through Parliament for approval. David Kernohan has crunched the numbers to see what the implications are for the sector.

Who’s counting?

Both the registration fees and the criterion for University Title require a calculation of student numbers. The requirements being:

  • Registration fees – the fee band providers are charged is calculated by the number of FTE students.
  • University Title – to gain UT, the number of FTE higher education students (level 6 or above) must exceed 55 per cent.

However, in the government DAP/UT consultation response, it outlines a concern raised about calculating students based on their full-time or part-time status, rather than by intensity of study. Thus suggesting students on intense courses, such as accelerated degrees, should be calculated higher. One respondent suggests these students should be calculated as 1.5 intensity, rather than counted as a single full-time student.

The government response outlines, that it “will determine the detailed methodology for calculating student numbers, for the purposes of the 55 per cent criterion for University Title, based on the actual intensity of study. This method will be aligned with the measure for calculating Registration Fees.” Yet, there is no mention of this alternative form for calculating student numbers in any of the registration fee documents. With a greater number of fee bands, and increased costs at play, how these numbers are calculated will be key.

All aboard for students

The Office for Students has come under increased scrutiny for its engagement of, and ability to work for, students. A very public and official criticism of the recruitment process for its board has left OfS attempting to re-establish its function for students. Following some tinkering around the edges, the OfS has introduced a new principle for the governance of registered providers: “The governing body ensures that all students have opportunities to engage with the governance of the provider, and that this allows for a range of perspectives to have influence.”

In the narrative response, OfS has outlined that it will look to see whether there is a student member of the provider’s governing body, unless its legal form precludes this. Reading this suggests that unless a provider’s governing documents require students on the board, the OfS won’t enforce it. This seems a wasted sentiment. Many HEIs already have students on the board as it was recommended by HEFCE.

Senior pay – brought to account

With so much media attention over the last year focused on senior pay and Jo Johnson promising OfS will enforce sanctions, you might be expecting a strong regulatory condition here. However, with direct control of vice chancellors’ pay subject to institutional autonomy, the ability for OfS to act on this issue has always been limited.

As part of the accountability conditions, providers are required to comply with the OfS “accounts direction”. OfS has included the disclosure of senior staff pay within the accounts direction, to include pay over £100,000, full remuneration packages, justifications and relationship with remuneration committees. Furthermore, providers are expected to adhere to a governance principle of value for money and the CUC remuneration guidance.

It hasn’t outlined what is deemed inappropriate or unjustified pay, so any sanctions would apply mostly to the declaration of information and governance principles. But here is where the market thinking comes in. By forcing providers to declare this so publicly, it allows for accountability to the student, the taxpayer, and the media.

Track record required

Their remains little information about how New Degree Awarding Powers will actually work. The Department for Education states that OfS should publish guidance on the criteria and process for getting New DAPs. However, the significant change here is that New DAPs will be unavailable for research degrees due to the increased risk that this would undermine the UK’s reputation for world-class research.

Pre-approved Quality Code

The consultation of the new Quality Code, led by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (UKSCQA), is due out in March 2018. In the previous regulatory consultation, OfS outlined that if the new Quality Code were not to be fit for purpose, it would ask the Designated Quality Body (DQB) to develop a more appropriate reference point for the quality review. However, today’s framework outlines their plan to adopt the new code when launched in March. “The method for such review visits will be developed by the DQB to assess the provider against the expectations and core practices in the version of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education published in March 2018.”

With no caveats mentioned, we assume there is an agreement between OfS and UKSCQA on what the quality code will contain.

One response to “Regulatory Framework 2.0 – What you need to know

  1. What’s the basis for writing: “However, the significant change here is that New DAPs will be unavailable for research degrees due to the increased risk that this would undermine the UK’s reputation for world-class research.” The criteria for RDAP on pp. 159-61 of the main document look much the same – if not identical – to the current ones.

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