Seven things to note from July’s OfS board papers

The Office for Students’ July Board papers are out, and we’ve read them so you don’t have to.

Here’s seven things we picked out that are worthy of noting in the summer policy lull.

An NSSary review

As many have predicted, it looks like NSS is up for review. The paper presented to the board in July is unsurprisingly redacted in full – but is labelled as “2021 and beyond”, subtitled “a paper setting out proposals for the arrangements for future surveys”, and says “we will communicate any changes to the delivery of the National Student Survey to the sector at the appropriate time”.

This appears to signal that we won’t see changes for the 2020 iteration – maybe indicating that OfS will take some time to consult, or alternatively will at least give the sector a year to get used to the idea of being measured on perceptions of student safety, belonging and value for money before a survey kicks in. We’re also expecting some extension into postgraduates, a wider lens than the “academic” experience, some use of NSS to test OfS’ regulatory objectives and changes to delivery – we could see all years, random sampling, and social media analysis. One to watch.

TEFlon

The Board saw a presentation from Dame Shirley Pearce, on her statutory review of the “Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework”, or TEF to you and me. The review itself needs to be laid before parliament, so we’ll be reading it ourselves (and sharing the juicy bits with you on Wonkhe) either later today or in September.

The accompanying paper is a fun read, though OfS’ internal analysis of subject level pilots, and the potential implications arising from the review’s recommendations are also naturally redacted. There are few clues – although reading between the lines we think we’re in for some fairly major changes.

DMU

We now know that the Board discussed in De Montfort in May, and noted that the case could provide the OfS with an opportunity to draw out some “broader themes” which could “usefully be communicated” to the rest of the sector. It also raised wider questions around “provider governance” and the board agreed it would discuss this further at a future meeting – although as far as is documented this didn’t then happen in July.

That’s all fine

You’ll know that the standard line from Michael Barber (Chair) or Nicola Dandridge (CEO) on various issues has been that the threat of fining providers for breaches has always been in the background. It’s not a theoretical threat – the board will approve a “monetary penalty framework” which sets out the circumstances in which a monetary penalty may be imposed by the chief executive or the Director of Competition and Registration. An approved monetary penalty framework will specify a maximum value for a monetary penalty imposed under the framework.

Augar

One of the things we’ve been thinking about is the partial shift back to funder (rather than regulator) that Augar’s recommendations would represent if implemented. OfS has started thinking about this too, and noted in a paper that:

  • From the student’s perspective their tuition fees will be less (albeit repayable over a longer period)
  • The reduction in fee (where the price is fixed by the provider) and the increase in grant (which is controlled by principles to be developed by the OfS) could enable teaching resource to be tied more closely to the actual cost of delivery
  • The increased allocation of grant reflecting social and economic value would allow for more strategic shaping of funding allocations and priorities, beyond the market dynamic of student choice. Nonetheless, student choice would still be a significant determinant of the shape of the sector
  • The increased reliance on grant allocations as opposed to tuition fees means that here is more vulnerability to political and economic decisions about grant. Concerns have been expressed by the sector about the implications of tuition fees being reduced, and the corresponding increased direct grant not being forthcoming.

If you’re into this sort of thing, there’s also a really interesting paper on changes to the unit of resource for higher education in England over time – although sadly a paper on reviewing OfS’s approach to funding setting out the “considerations relevant” is redacted.

Media

There are some in the sector that bemoan OfS seeking press coverage – thinking it puts the secor in a bad light and fuels moral panics on ministerial pet projects like grade inflation or unconditional offers. But OfS is pretty pleased with its approach for all sorts of reasons:

The regulator is delighted to have made a splash internationally – the New York Times and Washington Post picked up an Associated Press report on fair access and participation – and also seems impressed with coverage in the Financial Times and The Times on hot button topics like grade inflation, unconditional offers, senior staff pay and mental health. But most importantly, OfS has produced “regular blogs for Wonkhe”.

But in case you are concerned, OfS makes clear that “We are not simply interested in column inches, though prominence helps get our message across. We are more interested in impact. Increasingly the OfS is credited with having a positive impact where we have had significant media coverage and doing so in this way both complements and enhances our regulatory capability.”

We’d be interested to see the data on that. But it is clear that the approach isn’t going to go away.

Budget

From the 373 providers on the register, OfS is expecting £26m next year. However there’s a little bit of worry shown about the 57 registered providers that have not yet responded to the regulator’s request for subscription fees. This is a registration requirement, and don’t think for a second that OfS won’t take action if they don’t get the money.

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