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Robust registration in the student interest

The CEO of the Office for Students Nicola Dandridge reflects on the state of play in relation to registering higher education providers
This article is more than 5 years old

Nicola Dandridge is the Chief Executive of the Office for Students.

The registration of universities, colleges and other higher education providers is one of the most important roles within the authority of the Office for Students.

Registration provides us with the mechanism for ensuring that all students studying with a registered provider can rely on a common threshold of quality, financial sustainability and transparency.  Registration brings with it significant benefits for providers, enabling them to receive public funds for teaching, and allowing their students to access government-backed loans. We therefore have to make sure that the registration process is robust and that we are making the right decisions.

Additional mitigations

As we are registering providers we are putting in place a range of additional regulatory mitigations for a number of them. This is where we are satisfied that the provider meets our baseline conditions, but we have assessed that it requires enhanced monitoring or specific conditions to reflect their level of risk. Specific conditions are published on the register, but the much more extensive requirements for enhanced monitoring are not. We plan to publish a sector-level picture of the patterns of interventions here when the registration process is complete.

The first objective in our strategic plan is around access and participation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so it should come as no surprise that this has been a significant focus during the registration process.

We are also having conversations with providers about the quality of their courses and the outcomes they deliver for their students. Clearly people enter HE for a range of reasons, but continuation and graduate outcomes have to be seen as important measures for students who are making a significant investment in their studies. It is right that universities and colleges do all they can to ensure students are supported during their studies and are well prepared for life after graduation.

Financial viability and sustainability

We are also taking our responsibilities to assess the financial viability and sustainability of providers seriously. This issue has made the headlines in recent weeks and we need to ensure that the providers we register have demonstrated that they are both viable and sustainable. We have been clear that we will not bail out a registered provider. This means that we need to consider all the options that are available to protect the interests of students should things start to go wrong for a provider. Our primary mechanism for doing this is the student protection plan. While those providers we have registered have plans that have met our requirements, it is clear that many could be substantially improved. We will be in touch with those providers and in the new year will be issuing new guidance to the sector.

Significant progress

We have a team of around twenty working full-time on registration. They have developed extensive expertise across a diverse pool of applications and have been working diligently since the spring. They are making significant and sustained progress in assessing the 455 applications we have received so far, including some received very recently. As of this morning, there are 230 providers on the register. We made clear when we set up the registration process that we would focus first on providers which require students to apply by the October UCAS deadlines. All of these providers have now received a decision. We are now actively assessing the outstanding applications, carrying out initial checks on those which have applied more recently.

Where there are delays in the process this is often due to our seeking further information from a provider. For some, this has needed significant and ongoing discussions around one or more conditions. Nothing should be inferred that from delay nor from a provider not being on the register at this stage. That said, I do understand that providers want a decision on their application as soon as possible.

This initial registration process is a one-off exercise that will set us up with a regulatory system that is effective and risk-based. We want providers that meet our threshold requirements and offer high quality education to their students to see less regulation, not more.  We will continue to make ourselves available and accountable and will, of course, review what has worked in this process and what could have been improved.

At the same time, we are confident that the process as a whole is proportionate, reflecting the great responsibility universities, colleges and other higher education providers have to securing excellent access, experience and outcomes for their students.

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