The pre-election period can be a cruel beast.
As noted elsewhere on the site, the Office for Students (OfS) is covered by Cabinet Office guidance to civil servants on activity during an election, where OfS’ approach to sector level regulation – characterised by a penchant for baity media coverage – falls foul of the general principle that communications and consultations should be held off “to avoid competition with parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public”.
This means that consultations on guidance around student protection plans, expectations around safeguarding and its admissions review will now almost certainly not emerge before 2020. We might even be denied the Office for Students Annual Review, whose explosive content would doubtless have swung a raft of key marginals.
Whilst we wait for the election to pass, student safeguarding remains a major issue. “The Office for Students will continue to work with universities and colleges, and other organisations to ensure that all students from all backgrounds can be – and feel – safe on campus” said CEO Nicola Dandridge recently.
It will need to. In our survey on SU value, only three quarters of students agreed that they felt “safe” at university – surely a basic prerequisite for learning, however it’s interpreted. The figures are worse for almost every protected characteristic. Just 6 in 10 agreed they felt comfortable being and expressing themselves at university, and only 54 per cent agreed that there is “sufficient provision of student wellbeing and support services to meet my needs”. A similar number felt that their university “cares about my mental health and wellbeing”.
These issues surrounding the environment in which learning is supposed to happen and outcomes get generated is a tough and serious one for England’s higher education regulator. Student mental health and harassment are rarely out of the press, and each time OfS has to say something that sounds tough. “We will intervene in serious examples of universities failing to address these issues seriously”, said serious Nicola Dandrige recently in relation to one high profile harassment case. But how would they know when to intervene?
In a Freedom of Information response released earlier in the year, OfS admitted that it doesn’t collect data on staff or student complaints or legal action in this space, arguing that collecting data about these matters is “not one of the conditions of OfS registration” and therefore “sits outside of our regulatory framework”. It would be for “Government or the Equality and Human Rights Commission to amend or recommend an amendment to … probably the Equality Act 2010 or the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to change our powers and duties in this area”. OfS does get data on complaints from the OIA, but accepts that “they do not have a full list of all complaints at all providers”.
On mental health, “it is impossible not to be concerned at the scale and seriousness of distress, anxiety and depression among students”, it said recently. “We take very seriously an issue that students are telling us is one of the highest priorities for them”, it stresses, but in truth all of the action here is what it defines as “sector level” regulation – identifying issues where there may be systemic gaps and “promoting and incentivising” change rather than actually insisting on anything at provider level.
The excuses for not regulating these issues at provider level range from it not being “OfS’ role to instruct universities or colleges how to support their own students” to a need to “protect institutional autonomy” – but the slew of cases and endless reports suggest that having the autonomy and freedom to not be very good at this stuff is letting students down. There are all sorts of aspects of its regulation where a broadly described basic, underpinned by effective data collection, can be interpreted at local level – and having looked in detail at the complaints arrangements in the “long tail” of the providers on the register, that basic is desperately needed.
The other implied excuse is that it’s all Jo Johnson’s fault for not giving OfS powers or duties in this space, but we’re not so sure. A board paper last May noted that “the OfS has a duty to have regard to promote equality & diversity across the whole student lifecycle” and in taking forward one of its four primary objectives, the OfS will ensure that “all students, from all backgrounds… are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from higher education”.
The paper went on to propose to define the “quality” of higher education as set out in HERA as something covering the student experience in a way that incorporates their “welfare, wellbeing and safeguarding”. “Welfare” was defined as “the systems, policies and processes used by providers to exercise their duty of care towards their students and staff across the academic and non-academic spheres/spaces”, “wellbeing” was defined as “a state of health – both physical and mental – and happiness” and “safeguarding” defined as “systems, policies and cultures through which providers keep students safe from harm, and respond when incidents occur”. The paper was agreed by the board.
If it’s true that OfS is defining “quality” in part in relation to these aspects of the learning environment, you’d expect these aspects to feature in the UK Quality Code – after all, it was adopted by OfS as its core baseline standard for “quality” in its “B” conditions. But we know that the negotiations over the code saw OfS officials repeatedly insisting that the code should be about outcomes rather than prerequisites and processes, with only a compromise over student engagement finding its way into the final version. Surely, if Australia can recognise that these issues are a basic prerequisite for learning, we could too? Which member of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment is going to object if it was asked to revise the code to put issues of welfare, wellbeing and safeguarding into the document?
Something interesting was about to happen. To coincide with its event on students, OfS was due to publish a consultation document that was to set out its expectations on “what it is universities and colleges should be doing to prevent harassment, hate crime and sexual misconduct”, and what it expects providers to do “to deal with reports appropriately and effectively”. These would have, it says, linked to existing regulatory conditions, and we note that “amendments to the regulatory framework” were due to be approved by the Board in January. Maybe we’re getting some new “suggested behaviours” under the management and governance condition, but whatever emerges is bound to be all a bit square peg round hole – and will now have to wait until the new year.
The key here is that welfare, wellbeing and safeguarding are core aspects of quality. Yes, the way that providers handle complaints and the way in which culture is changed are issues of management and governance. But the environment in which students study (and staff teach and supervise) is also fundamentally about quality, pedagogy and the decisions made by academics about curricula, academic support, assessment and teaching. There’s a reason why matters of student welfare are often held by academic boards and senates. So while we wait for OfS’ consultation, the UKSCQA should demand that these aspects appear in the quality code. QAA should crack on with some enhancement work here for its subscribers. Advance HE should be redeveloping the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) to include them as core competencies. And OfS officials should be thinking about putting questions on them in the NSS.
Oh, and one other thing we won’t now get during the PEP is a series of promised “Prevent” publications. Given OfS collects “welfare casework” stats as a proxy for Prevent compliance, if it’s legally too much to ask that they look at said stats through the optic of welfare more generally, ministers should act to change the law as soon as Parliament returns.