Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Christmas was cancelled this year. So as an early Easter present, we’ve got two lots of board papers to sift through.

1 December

Three and a half months on from the 1 December OfS board meeting, the sector is privileged to get to read two out of six substantive papers.

December already feels like a long time ago, but there are still a few things of interest. If there was a OfS board paper premium subscription option we would gladly pay to read the “exempt from publication” materials on free speech and on financial sustainability.

1. Beating panel

In the minutes from 22 Sept, we learn that there were 890 applications to join the new enhanced and refreshed Student Panel, which was taken as a vote of confidence in the body. The general consensus of the OfS board was that the panel was effective, and the recommendations – including both mentoring and reverse mentoring – ensured that the board and panel will have many interactions in the future.

2. Quality pockets

It’s an open secret at this stage, but we got clear confirmation that a large part of the OfS’s quality consultation was aimed at allowing the OfS to “directly regulate ‘pockets’ of weak performance within a large provider, for example, at subject level or for different levels of study”. The Designated Quality Body is still on the scene, but – somewhat dismissively – OfS wants to “ensure that it understands and is able to deliver our requirements”, rather than (say) drawing on the vast expertise and sector understanding within the QAA.

3. Sampling

Still on quality – December saw the board mount a spirited defence against the DfE’s “debureaucratisation” measures. The practice of random sampling does “not necessarily need to place significant burden on providers” and the board remains committed to the measures in the regulatory framework that saw the approach as a good test of the effectiveness of OfS monitoring. However, actually implementing random sampling would “require further substantial policy work that was not considered a priority”, suggesting that it had yet to actually happen in a meaningful way.

4. Fightback

Michael Barber also came out swinging on the NSS review – he “stressed the importance of the NSS and the information it provides”, and it turns out he had advised the Minister and the Secretary of State that this was the case. There was a general keenness among Board members to hear the views of students after an “inevitably challenging year”. There was a suggestion that OfS should remember it needed to “have regard to” ministerial guidance – hinting that the regulator may stick to its guns here.

5. And the rest

Also in the minutes – Data futures – of which more anon – saw around £2.5m allocated to HESA and Jisc to take it up to the end of March, and a conditional budget of £7.2m would see it through from April to March 2024. Yes, that is £14m since 2017. This latter allocation was dependent on a stop-go point in March 2021.

The Quality Assessment Committee seems to spend a lot of time talking about the QAA – in September the report was that “the QAA appeared to have taken on board the OfS’s feedback about its performance and QAA officers had confirmed that they understood the OfS’s requirements”. But there’s still scope to revisit. OfS charmingly offered up a 10 per cent efficiency saving from the QAA in response to the bureaucracy agenda – much to the delight of hard-working staff at the Gloucester agency.

6. Very active. Honest. So so active.

In the Chief Executive’s report, we are reminded that OfS has spent a long time reassuring everyone that it is actively monitoring quality of provision during the pandemic. The regulator states it is in “active discussion” with all providers, and where it identifies issues through that or information from students it enters an even more active discussion. Those in this “special measures” group include those who have changed (HE Covid) tiers – remember tiers? no, us neither – and where there are concerns about academic or mental health support. The regulator has also been polling students’ views and the board will get to see a report on this.

7. Admissions review impossible

After DfE blindsided the OfS in starting a review of admissions that completely ignored the supposedly “paused” OfS review, the regulator is now considering whether to investigate further the issues within its own consultation. There’s a commitment to “work closely with” UCAS, UUK, and DfE on the next phase of work (“active monitoring”, one could call it) and there is a particular interest in making sure part time, mature, international, and postgraduate students are not forgotten. If there is a case to relaunch the OfS review with a narrow set of considerations, the board was told, it will happen.

8. More from the report

Elsewhere in the report, the turn-of-the-year feel continues with a mention of “start to success”, the new experimental metric that seems to have lost both its name and any impetus it may once have had. Can’t think why.

We’re delighted to report that Wonkhe now features in the media round-ups received by the board – meaning that the OfS may finally have forgiven us for whatever it was we did.

However rude we get about the regulator, we do have a lot of sympathy for the people who work there (both DK and Mark have worked at the predecessor body, HEFCE). A recent staff survey found that 90 per cent of staff feel supported by the OfS, but – even though staff like the flexibility of homeworking – there are concerns about mental health in an increasingly challenging situation.

Future board meetings will cover:

  • January (or, as it turned out, February): A review of transparency condition, and the review of NSS Finance report, both aspects of the DfE burden agenda. Report from RAC Report from PRC Report from QAC Report from HSP Possible follow up from planning event
  • March: The NSS review phase 1 outcomes (which were originally promised for 2020), that data futures decision point, and an update on TEF plans.
  • May: Draft strategy, annual report, and accounts.

9. Horizon scanning

Our favourite sector future-gazers have been scenario planning and doing the digital teaching and learning report. Lots of discussion about exactly the kinds of things you would expect, but we don’t get any detail on clear recommendations.

10. Designated driver

HESA gets the joy of submitting an annual report each year – with this year being the one that would inform the triennial report that OfS writes for DfE about the continued status as DDB. HESA, it seems, has “largely delivered the information functions although there are a number of areas for improvement”.

The big one was a low response rate for Graduate Outcomes – which hovered around 50 per cent for most groups instead of the hoped for 60 per cent. But it also emerged that HESA is monitored by (approximately) 427 key performance indicators – an endeavor that just screams “administrative burden” to me. Here’s a few highlights, but do read the whole list in Annex A of the paper:

  • Of the astronomical number of elements of data processed by HESA, 12 mistakes were identified. There’s no target for the “correct” number of errors, but this was seemingly enough for a fail on this metric. One of these was a provider error that wasn’t picked up, and one referred to the incorrect use of a predicted end date for a governor’s term of office
  • There were two (2) calculation errors across all of the data HESA publishes – another fail.
  • On the face of it slightly more concerning, there were two breaches of the Code of Practice for Statistics – OfS only managed one in a similar time period having published an awful lot less data, the ONS managed 31. The first was a delay of 34 minutes for the publication of the Unistats dataset (a dataset that DK feels he is pretty much the only person to use in the entire world), the second a delay of 40 minutes in providing the data tables alongside the release due to the late identification of some missing data (an #ERROR code rather than at (+) in the significance markers for the WP UKPIs).

We learned from the next set of minutes that this was all a “fair reflection” of HESA’s performance over the year – and that HESA has worked well with OfS despite resourcing issues. Incredibly, the board wanted to see even more detail about the challenges faced during the year – and saw a role for the Risk and Audit committee. This suggests that the board hadn’t read the fine detail of the HESA report.

3rd February

11. Pinch punch

As with the December 2020 papers, there’s quite a bit that’s redacted from the February 2021 bundle – an update on the development of proposals for a new approach to the TEF is missing, an update on findings and recommendations from the first phase of the review of the NSS is being kept hush, and an update on the designated quality body is, preposterously, exempt from publication on the basis that it’s “commercial in confidence”.

We also don’t get to see a paper analysing the statutory guidance letter from Gavin Williamson and OfS’ proposed consultation on funding, or a paper seeking the board’s view on the development of OfS’ new strategy – and even the board’s own KPMG commissioned effectiveness review is marked “locally sensitive information”.

12. Not directly involved

In the minutes, the discussion on Nicola Dandridge’s CEO report from the December meeting is interesting. They confirm that OfS had “not directly been involved” in the announcements made by DfE, UCAS and UUK about the future approach to undergraduate admissions – a pretty sharp rebuke to the regulator given in previous strategic guidance letters Gavin Williamson welcomed OfS’ own review which as we noted above has been indefinitely and mysteriously paused since last spring.

13. Broad and enabling

Although we didn’t get to see the free speech paper that went to the December meeting, we do have a read of the discussion on it in the minutes. What emerges is that OfS had developed a draft “regulatory approach” to free speech and academic freedom, and the intention had been to engage providers in a consultation through the use of an open letter. It seems that we were going to get a “broad enabling framework” promoting a culture of free speech and inclusivity.

The minutes tell us that the DfE rep in the room confirmed that free speech was an important issue for ministers and advised he and his colleagues would “wish to continue to work closely” with OfS on ministers’ emerging proposals. But a “broad enabling framework” and a “consultation through the use of an open letter” are nothing like what ended up being proposed for OfS in the DfE policy paper in February – and so we’re sticking with our theory that the proposals from ministers really do represent the kind of breakdown in trust we speculated on last month.

We also learn that the board reckoned the content and tone of that open letter was likely to be well received by stakeholders (unlike DfE’s proposals) and the board noted that some had “expressed concern” about how to reconcile the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism with their established policies and principles on inclusivity and their own commitments to free speech.

14. Covenants

Another paper we didn’t get to see in the December bundle was on the financial sustainability of the sector, although we assume it was a version of the report OfS published on December 11th. Bits of note from the discussion include a evidence that banks are tightening up their approach to breaches of covenants; unsurprisingly pressures on pensions, including both for USS and TPS, continue to be a concern; and expenditure on restructuring costs for individual providers, if applicable, will be clearer when further data is received in early 2021.

15. Missing inaction

There’s nothing of note in the CEO report or the Student Panel report – October’s minutes had already been published a few weeks ago. Meanwhile although the paper from the Quality Assessment Committee is published it’s almost all redacted, and almost all of the Risk and Audit Committee report is redacted.

16. Beginning of the end

At least Michael Barber’s pet (and “pilot”) Horizon Scanning Panel report is present, although it’s a sad end. We learn that a paper had been provided to the panel setting out hypothetical scenarios for the future of higher education in England in 2030. These were “plausible descriptions” of the future landscape, not predictions – which covered “benign and forced innovation”, and the expansion and contraction of domestic student numbers. We would have loved to see it. They didn’t cover whether Michael Barber’s pet (and “pilot”) Horizon Scanning Panel would survive 2021, and the report just says that issue “would be determined by the new chair and the Executive”. We wouldn’t bet on it.

Oh, and for the first time there’s no note on future board business included in the pack. It’s truly the end of the beginning.

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