Ten things we learned from May’s OfS board papers

The Office for Students has published board papers for May, 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

If it only feels like a fortnight or so since we last looked at a set of OfS board papers, that’s because it was – but in the meantime England’s higher education regulator has been on a publication spree with another set, this time from May 2021.

That said, don’t get too excited – of the twelve formal agenda items with papers, six are redacted in full, and various annexes to the CEO report are hidden too. It’s almost as if OfS needs a transparency condition.

Anyway as ever there’s a few nuggets. Strap in.

Minutes from 22 April 2021

April’s encounter was only 90 minutes long, and focussed mainly on a summary of responses to OfS’ ongoing consultation on regulating quality and standards in higher education. It’s almost entirely redacted, but we saw a lot of the result of the discussion on qualitative assessment back in late July, and will get the quantitative “outcomes” stuff later this year.

Chief executive’s report

Nicola Dandridge’s update says that it has been “an exceptionally busy period” for the Office for Students, “as reflected to a large degree in paper 4.1 (Update on delivery of OfS activity)”. Sadly that’s not a paper that us mere mortals are allowed to see.

The Board is reminded that OfS’ approach to participation this summer has been to caution providers to continue to meet commitments in their access and participation plans, as well as ensuring that they are able maintain quality in the context of potential increased demand for higher education courses. Do the impossible in the face of intense grade inflation concentrated in private schools and a legal duty to take who you’ve made offers to, basically.

OfS continues to consider information provided by students and other third parties through its notifications process, focusing on cases relating to the quality of teaching and learning during the pandemic and associated consumer protection issues. You’ll recall that back in March, Dandridge promised 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”. These unfulfilled promises are not repeated here.

There’s a short update on the consultations on recurrent and capital funding that have been all over the news – in which Dandridge feels compelled to reveal that although the detail is supposed to be up to OfS, DfE had “indicated they would consider imposing a direction under section 77 of the Higher Education and Research Act, 2017 (HERA) on the OfS to require us to implement any changes they want to see”. Back in your box, OfS board!

In September, the OfS board is going to have an away day – and one of the topics will be its new 2022 strategy and 2022/23 business plan. That’s good news, since its last business plan actually ran out back in March.

Update on delivery of OfS activities

What has OfS been up to between April and May 2021. We could read the press releases and tell you, but we can’t read this paper because it has been redacted.

Strategy 2022-25 update

A redacted paper seeking the board’s view on the development of the OfS’s new strategy.

OfS risk report

A redacted report to the board on the OfS’s strategic and principal risks.

Consultation on calculation of monetary penalties

A redacted update to the board on the outcome of the recent consultation containing proposals about the way the OfS should calculate a monetary penalty for a registered provider that has breached a condition of registration.

Postgraduate taught student survey development

This was a redacted report to the board on the outcomes of a feasibility study of an annual course experience survey of postgraduate taught students undertaken in 2019. That said, we learn that OfS expects to publish further details of the survey in “summer 2021” – and it’s not long now until 2am on the last Sunday in October!

Digital teaching and learning review

This is a curious one. If you think back to the March meeting, the board saw a paper that essentially noted that the “Gravity Assist” report was out (that the report on digital teaching and learning that DfE asked Michael Barber to do) and asked whether the Board fancied a read and a “general discussion”.

The Board were so keen that it asked for more time to be devoted to this pressing regulatory issue, and the exact same paper duly returned to the May meeting. We hope the Board had a really interesting discussion.

Report from the Student Panel

Now this is kind of interesting. As well as being wheeled out in front of ministers and being used to fill conference panel slots requiring a student voice, internally the main function of the panel seems to be to be consulted on emerging work streams.

This time there was a discussion on the international student experience which you might argue could have been hampered by the relative lack of actual international students on the panel. Nevertheless the panel highlighted that some international students may not seek mental health support because it may not be culturally acceptable or normalised, and identified a need to improve communication and support for international students who have experienced harassment, hate or misconduct while at university. The fact that OfS doesn’t really appear to have any actual formal regulatory remit or powers in these areas of student safety or mental health wasn’t highlighted.

The second session explored “ideas for a new package of resources” to develop students’ and students’ unions’ understanding of the regulatory environment and “empower them in their partnerships with their providers”, work that should be completed just in time for Parliament to grant OfS new powers to fine those SUs for trying to ban holocaust deniers.

Report from the Provider Risk Committee

Redacted (though we kind of get why, as much as we’d love to read it)

Report from the Quality Assessment Committee

This is a special Board committee that obsesses over the format of reports from the Designated Quality Body (the QAA). At a meeting held on 10 February it saw a presentation setting out key themes from the quality and standards consultation responses (redacted, of course), and asked the QAA to start again on updating the Quality and Standards Review process. The QAA had commented on the OfS proposed key performance measures, and the OfS had responded – a final item from this essential meeting of minds talked about the structure of the QAA’s third annual report.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

In contrast, there probably was some interesting stuff at the December 2020 Risk and Audit Committee – which was of course redacted. Otherwise the meeting focused on cyber security (there was a presentation from the Chief Technology Officer followed by a “deep dive” into the issue). The fascinating nuggets are around the edges – the section covering risk management appeared to suggest that the OfS itself had been subject to “recent information security breaches”, and there was a presentation concerning the risks to delivery of the Data Futures project.

The regulator was “on track to deliver the internal audit plan” by the end of 2020 you’ll be pleased to hear, likewise Covid-19 had not caused any significant issues for delivery. Finally, the committee approved the accounting policies used in the preparation of the 2020-21 financial statements.

2 responses to “Ten things we learned from May’s OfS board papers

  1. The thing I miss from the olden days of OFS is the Annex to the CEO’s report – ‘Board forward look’ which told you (a) the dates of the board meetings and (b) the plan of the work to come.

    There are some technical things (say the response to the Reportable Events or Publication of Information about providers consultations or the annual exercise around Prevent) that might have gone to May’s meeting but might be at the one that they (probably) had in July.

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