Sixteen things we learned from March and April’s OfS board papers

The Office for Students has published board papers for March and April, and David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson have had a read so you don't have to.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

Here we go again then – we’ve read and picked out all the best bits from OfS’ board papers so you don’t have to, this time covering two (well, one and a half) meetings for the price of one in March and April.

Don’t get too excited, mind – there’s a decidedly bring-in-a-board game end-of-the-Chair’s-term vibe to it all. On your marks, get set, regulate!

March madness

The 20th meeting of the OfS board on 9 March 2021 looked relatively short – there’s usually all sorts of sub-committees doing reports back, but here we just have February’s minutes, CEO Nicola Dandridge’s report, and papers on the beleaguered Data futures project and Michael Barber’s pet Digital teaching and learning review.

Minutes from February

We can all be pleased to learn that in taking on the “delivery unit” review for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office, outgoing Chair Michael Barber had reduced his time working for OfS – and confirmed to the board that he would not be taking his chair’s salary for the first quarter of this calendar year.

In the discussion on Nicola Dandridge’s report, we discover that “given the continuing pressures of a further lockdown on providers”, OfS had not taken forward the publication of a planned open letter on free speech in January. Not pressures that DfE were too worried about, given it pressed ahead with its own command paper on the issue in February and legislation in May, leaving OfS looking decidedly out of the loop.

We are also told that there were “plans for the OfS to consider the issue of VC pay early in 2021” – an issue that was all the rage when OfS was created, but seems to have disappeared recently with nothing since February 2019.

In a discussion on the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) led for some reason by the Director for Fair Access and Participation, members argued that running the TEF every 4 or 5 years was a long period, and that it risked “losing its relevance” (what little it had to start with) and might fail to achieve its original purpose of influencing behaviour within providers as a result. “We need to ensure the UK’s reputation for teaching quality is maintained internationally”, said one member, and “any evidence OfS publishes for this audience is robust and timely”. Well yes.

Introducing the results of the Phase One NSS review, Director of External Relations Conor Ryan delivered a three-pronged rebuttal to the views that had been expressed by ministers some months previously:

  • Without the NSS it was likely that providers would run their own surveys.
  • Although it is mostly academic staff that see the NSS as a burden, the majority of academics do recognise its value in helping to improve the student experience.
  • The NSS is not seen as a major cause of grade inflation. Students are getting better degrees but there is no real evidence these are linked.

There’s then a beautifully crafted minute:

The DfE representative thanked the OfS for carrying out such a comprehensive review and responding to the questions that had been raised by government. He advised that ministers saw this as a robust piece of work and were keen that the right decisions were made as a result, taking into account the interests of the wide range of stakeholders providing information and advice to students. The preference of ministers was not to present a fixed set of conclusions at this stage but did acknowledge the final decision lies with the OfS board.”

Chief executive’s report

There’s little to report here other than noting things like guidance from Gavin Williamson and descriptions of work that has since emerged on stuff like harassment and sexual misconduct. One notable moment is where Dandridge reminds us that OfS has been asked to undertake a “scoping exercise” in relation to the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism across the higher education sector, with the expectation that this evidence would influence its regulation of providers. The aim was to consider the issue at the July board meeting “with the expectation that the board will be able to consider the findings alongside its annual consideration of the OfS equality objectives and action plan”, so maybe we’ll hear more about that soon.

Regular readers will know that we get quite frustrated that much of OfS’ regulatory work with individual providers is apparently going on behind the scenes, so it was interesting to read that OfS was “planning to publish some examples of how we have responded to concerns [about providers’ responses to the pandemic] in specific anonymised cases”, and was “considering further regulatory action in a small number of cases”. Sadly that plan doesn’t seem to have come to fruition so far, and if further regulatory action has been taken, it’s not of the sort that OfS has decided to report on publicly. Disappointing – although later we do learn that OfS was “continuing to look into regulatory matters relating to Imperial College that some board members may have seen reported in the media recently”.

And what’s missing? The numerical update on regulatory activity – how many providers are at what stage of registration, how many have had the traditional snotty letter. Perhaps the Board isn’t interested.

Back to the data futures

As you would expect given Covid-19, delivery of the Data Futures programme is behind schedule. Jisc and HESA have underspent, with 21 per cent of this year’s funds not yet used due to problems in recruiting and keeping contractors. The “agile” delivery plan supposedly allows for some contingency here, so there is scope to get back on track – but the Board are warned that “ability to absorb further delays is now limited”.

Realistically, we are looking at a delay to the start of data collection under the new plans, mitigated by the initial collection of aggregate data. This may turn into a blessing in disguise – you may recall OfS are due to review the burden of in year data collection, and this can only now take place in the autumn due to a wide range of other moving parts: changes to NSS, OfS strategic priorities funding, quality and standards monitoring, and TEF will all have an impact on what data the regulator actually needs to collect. The big boulder in the road is that if it turns out OfS don’t really need in-year data after all, England will need to diverge from the UK-wide data futures programme that it mostly funds. Which would be a bit embarrassing. Nevertheless, funding for another year of work was approved – not much of a surprise given that Gavin Williamson (who we understand is all over the detail of the project plan) had already approved it.

The Board, perhaps used to seeing papers about Data Futures problems, added the rider that the project needed to be closely monitored against agreed milestones – so the future feels a little more waterfall than agile now. A small group of data-focused OfS staff has been established to keep an even closer eye on things, and papers on the project will feature heavily in future board meetings.

Abort, retry, fail

A little bit of a nothing paper introducing the board to a little bit of a nothing review of teaching and learning. You may dimly remember Michael Barber’s “Gravity Assist”, the outgoing chair’s “one last job” opportunistically representing Jisc guidance from the last decade or so of blended and online (here, presented as “digital” as opposed to… “analogue” we suppose). The interest to be gleaned here is that the Board formally saw the paper in March, a couple of weeks after the February date of publication. We’re sure they enjoyed discussing the report “generally” – certainly enough that the minutes read “The board agreed to return to this paper at its next meeting to consider the longer-term implications for the OfS and its work”.

April Fools

The 21st meeting of the OfS board on 22 April 2021 consisted only of approving minutes from 9 March and an “exempt from publication – policy in development” paper on what has now emerged as OfS’ consultation on regulating quality and standards in higher education.

Minutes from March

Much of this is covered above, but the minutes record decisions taken by a sub-committee that later emerged as the results of the NSS review phase one. We also learn that “further resource pressure” comes from additional work required to support the government’s implementation of proposals on free speech and the FE White Paper, and the organisation is still committed to making the required 10 per cent saving in its administration budget.

On that free speech issue, there’s a particular art to a line in a set of minutes that says as follows:

The chief executive advised that officers were engaging with DfE officials to gain a more detailed understanding of the planned role for the free speech champion on the OfS board.”

…particularly given that later, members:

Stressed the need for further clarification from DfE on the scope of the free speech champion and the role the OfS would be expected to have in future in relation to this issue. It was agreed the board should receive regular updates on this matter.”

On admissions, initial data was indicating a “reasonably stable position” with an 8 per cent increase in applications overall – although providers beware, because OfS will “wish to ensure that any over-recruitment does not result in poor quality provision” and that “providers continue to deliver on their access and participation plans” – “wish” being the operative word, here.

An avalanche is going

March was Michael Barber’s last meeting as Chair – and as he had a prior engagement, he was only actually around for the final item, “closing remarks”. The deputy chair thanked him for his contribution, he was “virtually” presented with a leaving gift (a book containing messages from members of the board, OfS directors and staff and others that he has worked with that the minutes show “had been hand-made by an OfS colleague”), and then in response he reflected on his time in post and thanked the board, the directors and OfS staff for their work, commitment and support during that period.

Thirty minutes later, with not a dry eye left in the Zoom, the formal meeting closed at 1742. The chair elect, Lord Wharton, joined the meeting at that point where he was welcomed by Barber and introduced to the board. Wharton briefly outlined his priorities and vision for the role and took questions from board members.

The cosmic ballet goes on.

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