Andy Phippen is a professor of social responsibility in information technology at the University of Plymouth and is a visiting professor at the University of Suffolk.

Andy Youell is Executive Director: Regulation at UCEM

Dr Camille B. Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education at Imperial College London

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and a former Special Adviser to David Willetts, the Minister for Universities & Science.

Alex Bols is Deputy Chief Executive at GuildHE

In the latest in our series on the future of higher education regulation in England, top wonks from across the sector consider OfS’ role in safety and mental health, overlaps with other providers, “burden” and the diversity of the sector.

Andy Phippen: Students need a regulator that worries about welfare

My work mainly focuses on online abuse across all education sectors, and how institutions respond to online harms affecting their students. Do they effectively support victims? Do they provide effective education so students can recognise and disclose abuse? Are staff well trained?

Within the school and college sector, the combined powers of the Department for Education’s Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance and Ofsted’s inspection criteria rating the effectiveness of a school’s approach to online safeguarding, we can see massive progress around online safeguarding over the last ten years. When I look at the higher education sector, it is sadly lacking.

I know, from many conversations with students who have become victims to online abuse and harassment, that impacts can be severe and long term. They will withdraw from study, become isolated, and the abuse can potentially result in long term mental health issues. Equally, most believe they have no means to obtain help and support from the university, even if the abuse has been caused by a fellow student. From previous work in the area with Emma Bond at the University of Suffolk, we know that this is not something universities deal with effectively. In a couple of cases we were told by universities that student welfare is not their concern because “our students are all adults”.

I recall a couple of years ago being asked in a round table meeting “How can we get senior leaders to take student welfare seriously?”. “Easy,” I replied, “put it in the TEF”. There were a few audible gasps. Sadly, sometimes senior managers respond better to pressure from the regulator rather than doing the right thing through altruism. Yet I see little from the Office for Students that would suggest this is a priority for them. Their recently published statement of expectations on sexual harassment and misconduct paid lip service to online abuse but did little more, and there is scant evidence of enforcement of these expectations. If the Office for Students wishes to regulate and improve student outcomes why do their efforts around student welfare seem so toothless?

Andy Youell: The regulatory car-crash

A regulatory framework is like a motor car. It involves a number of components each of which performs a particular task. Together these components create a coherent, functioning machine which meets the given design objectives with any trade-offs and compromises that entails. Some are built for speed – some are built for practicality.

To work in this way we are regulated by both OfS and by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFATE)/ESFA frameworks. Our management of quality is scrutinised and assessed by both the QAA and OfSted who apply different types of tests, executed in different ways and to wildly different timescales. We make individual-level student data returns to HESA and to the ESFA Individualised Learner Record. The HESA return is collected once per year (though the OfS are still contemplating if a second in-year collection should be run) and we make fourteen (yes, 14!) individualised student data returns to ESFA each year to satisfy their requirements. This duplication in regulatory requirements gears in a massive duplication to processes, systems and posts.

Layer onto this the inconsistencies on other components of the regulatory machine. Access and Participation Plans include targets for access from under-represented groups though this is meaningless when the recruitment is done by employers; Student Protection Plans are required to protect the student from the failure of an education provider but not by their employer in the case of an apprenticeship.

The bulk of our funding comes through two siloed funding mechanisms – the Apprenticeship Levy or the HE Student Finance system. There is little flexibility for joint funding and woe betide the student who finds themself needing to move from one silo to another. The IFATE, the EFSA and OfS don’t appear to have any sense of how their respective worlds could be made more interoperable and coherent, and it is left to providers to figure it all out and comply with all of them independently. This achieves one thing, which is to add cost and take even more resources away from the front line and enhancing the student experience. It’s a very costly car crash.

Camille Kandiko Howson: Embrace the sector’s diversity

Higher education providers in England come in all shapes and sizes, serving a vast range of courses, levels of study and types of students. A one-size-fits-all regulator fails to both properly regulate this diverse sector AND support the market differentiation and competition it was set up to support. Base regulatory requirements for all institutions followed up with conditions most relevant to specific institutional types (or student populations or courses) could make for a much leaner and competitive sector.

Conveniently, we have different national frameworks to draw on. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) provides ways to categorise units within institutions and set relevant metrics against them. The Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) shows how institutional groupings can be used to compare ‘like for like’ across certain institutional activities. As DK on Wonkhe is evangelising, mission groups are not the answer, but there are plenty of ways to focus regulatory activity at the appropriate areas of the sector.

OfS seems to be turning one of the best bits of the sector – the UK Quality Code – on its head so that it can better regulate small, new, niche alternative providers. It also requires mandates and policies on everything from freedom of speech to spelling evenly across institutions, some with large bureaucracies to take on such work, to small providers where some poor soul has to manage most of this alone.

Regulating uniformly across a large, diverse sector kills innovation, drives homogenisation and limits student choice. Providers can put forward different offers to students – and should be held account for that. A “real” office for students would help students make informed decisions across a range of providers and courses, provide meaningful comparative data within institutional or other groupings, and would promote quality across a range of different, diverse and wonderful higher education institutions.

Nick Hillman: It’s time to recalibrate the relationship between the regulator and the regulated

I vividly recall what Les Ebdon, the former Director for Fair Access, said a few years ago when he was asked, “What will the Office for Students do?” His answer was, “It’s very simple. I can tell you exactly what the OfS will do. It will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do.” And so it has proved.

I am not saying OfS is blameless. Although it has some fantastic staff from the top downwards, it clearly got off on the wrong foot in its early dealings with institutions. These were too impersonal, too directive and too disrespectful. When you consider the calibre and experience of your average chair of governors or the fact that there were back then at least two vice-chancellors in post who had run the OfS’ predecessor body HEFCE, you quickly realise that OfS should have worked more like a partner and less like an over-zealous parkie. I also think it was an error to remove the local presence that HEFCE had built up as a way of keeping ears to the ground.

But I think the main problem is different. For me, it is the volume of edicts that come OfS’ way. Seemingly, in response to any identified weakness, policymakers instruct OfS to sort it out. Headlines about fines of £500,000 usually follow. But when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. So I think we should mark the fifth anniversary of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) becoming law, in January 2022, by recalibrating the relationship between OfS and regulated institutions – but, remembering Les Ebdon’s wise words, that will only happen if we also recalibrate the relationship between policymakers and OfS.

Alex Bols: OfS needs to get things in proportion

“Regulators should choose proportionate approaches to those they regulate, based on relevant factors including, for example, business size and capacity.” As the Regulators Code highlights, proportionality should include relevant factors including the size of the institution. This question of proportionality is enshrined in OfS’ duties in legislation. But this issue of proportionality and the regulatory burden (including the cost) is the biggest issue that our members, including many smaller and specialist institutions, raise with us when discussing the regulator.

Secondly, HERA outlines that OfS has a responsibility for assessing the “quality” of higher education which is often expressed as everything above the regulatory baseline. There are currently 418 providers on the OfS’ register. So when OfS is assessing quality and developing a “scheme to give ratings”– the technical language that enables the TEF – it must consider the “diverse range of types of provider” rather than trying to create a one-size fits all approach. The diversity of providers is valued by students in supporting choice, meeting different societal purposes and employer needs and so regulation, or funding, should not increase pressures towards homogeneity of provision or provider.

The third key area I would highlight is the importance of the independent data and quality designated bodies. These bodies are essential in maintaining a balance in the regulatory system. Ensuring that they have a meaningful place in the regulatory system is important if we are to ensure that arms-length regulatory bodies are truly arms-length. I don’t think OfS has yet demonstrated that it is truly focused on the greatest risks – too much effort seems to be going everywhere. To maintain the confidence of the sector it needs to be targeted at the greatest areas of risk.

One response to “Should OfS worry about student welfare?

  1. The OfS needs to look beyond the easy headline IT stuff, too many Universities can’t even get room ventilation testing to ameliorate the risk of Covid spread right, if at all, a far greater danger to students long term physical health and with the potential for yet further lock-downs and enforced ‘distanced’ learning their mental health as well.

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