David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Office for Students’ Chair Michael Barber will leave the organisation in March 2021.

It marks the next step in a career that has taken in posts at the Department for Education and Skills, Pearson, McKinsey, the National Union of Teachers, Keele University, the Browne Review and – most famously – the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. In a working life spent in and around education he did more than most to bring the language and practice of data, dashboards, trajectories, indicators, and markets to policy making.

Yes, but does it extrapolate?

In that spirit, I thought I’d check on a few indicators of his performance at OfS. Sadly the performance measures for “efficiency and effectiveness” are not yet available, so I had to construct my own.

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Our first slide, “number of Offices for Students delivered”, sees a promising early start (his Universities UK conference speech three years ago this week is great to look back at) dip into stagnation. Barber (with Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge, whose influence can be detected in the recent “relationship reset” with the sector) drew a regulator with funding capacity fully formed from a previously existing regulator that also did a fair bit of funding.

The question around the OfS was always “why?”, rather than “how?” – for me, the new regulatory approach for all the grand words from Barber (“golden ages don’t have to be in the past” is the phrase that stuck out to me) we’ve not really seen OfS do anything that HEFCE couldn’t have.

The initial flurry of provider registrations has slowed to a crawl. Barber’s valedictory letter cites around 400 registered providers half way through 2020 (395 that we know about, the Dyson Institute joining earlier this month) – but there were 391 by the end of 2019, and “around 300” at the end of 2018.

There are just over 60 registration requests under active consideration, a figure that has also remained steady for a good while. Additional resource has been allocated to the registration team, but the number hasn’t really budged. Much to the disquet of a number of “challenger institutions” for whom the regulatory framework was supposed to level the playing field.

Indeed, the entire purpose of the 2017 reforms was to bring high quality private providers into the English higher education sector. A handful have arrived – but either the appetite isn’t there or the systems are not in place to welcome many of Jo Johnson’s “Byron Burgers”.

The cost of regulation

We’ve kept a close eye on the cost of the Office for Students – both in terms of the cost to the treasury (around £10m, which compares poorly with the forecast of £0) and the cost to the sector. Multiple registration fees, exactly what the Bell Review railed against, have plagued the sector in the years since the OfS was established – with the fees paid directly to the regulator causing most concern.

Significantly undershooting projections for registration has led to three increases between initial projection and final bill for 2019, and the OfS has not and will not “break even” without several further such increases.

Staff and administration costs have risen a cool £10m since HEFCE days. And despite doing less than HEFCE did – recall an entire other and far less controversial organisation, Research England, spun out to deal with research and third stream activity – more staff are needed in 2020 than in 2017. A brief dip in the first year of operation has been more than made up for since.

However, there has been a world-leading increase in the number of OfS publications. The Regulatory Framework (itself a hefty tome – shout out to the “reflective regulator”!) was initially thought to be the unchanging basis of regulation in the sector. However, there’s been numerous occasions in which clarification, interpretation, and new guidance has been issued to complement it.

Students in the Office

The much vaunted Student Panel has not done much that has been visible to any but the most determined of regulator-watchers. An early report into value for money for students didn’t reach the conclusions the regulator was hoping for, and there has been no further public interventions.

Indeed, the number of panel meetings has declined over time – four meetings were held in 2018, three in 2019, and so far only one has been held in 2020 – the next is due in September which is fine because there’s clearly nothing that requires student input going on before then.

Meanwhile the information offer to applicants remains largely as it was in HEFCE days. No-one can convince me that Discover Uni isn’t just Unistats with a paint job (and some glaring gaps in functionality), and although it gets the odd rhetorical mention when applicant behavior is discussed there doesn’t seem to have been any effort to promote it.

There’s some evidence that some students have at least heard of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), alas this comes during a fallow year with considerable questions as to what will follow. The Pearce Review of TEF is now nearly two years overdue publication, and although OfS claim to have plans to take forward the recommendations at both provider and subject level we don’t know what they are or how this will change a benchmark that has already changed substantially since year two.

Letters of note

Barber’s letter to Gavin Williamson (Secretary of State for Education at the time of writing) takes a valedictory tone, highlighting the successes of the Office for Students and offering little reflection as to opportunities missed.

On leaving Pearson he highlighted his pioneering work on efficacy – the number of efficacy reports published have fallen sharply since his tenure, but the aim remains a noble one. Bringing the standards of academic educational research into the world of learning resource marketing was an important and timely intervention.

He wrote a whole book (Instruction to Deliver – a genuinely great read) on leaving the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, including a long appendix on how to centralise power around a “Prime Minister’s Department” that now seems eerily prescient. He described his decision to leave as the completion of a plan – he was clear that he “didn’t want to run the PDMU through another parliament”, noting that

It is easy to slip into the mindset that no-one else can do the job, and then slip further into ‘I’ve seen this all before’”

although, this is undercut by the fact that his governance revolution – the “stocktakes” involving the PM, Minister, departmental leads, and several spreadsheets – had been cancelled in favour of the return of Cabinet Committees.

On the Monday after the 2005 general election, he wrote to his team in familiar terms:

It is clear that the PMDU has made a lasting impact… the methods are so familiar now it is easy to forget how much intellectual capital they embody… looking forward the work of the PMDU will remain important, indeed more so as we enter a period of slower growth of resources”

Compare his letter to Gavin Williamson:

You know better than anyone that we still have plenty to do, for example, to minimise the effects of the pandemic on students from disadvantaged backgrounds or to assist institutions which may face significant financial challenges”

There is a pattern here. The PDMU merged gradually into the Treasury before it was disbanded after the 2010 election, Pearson’s struggles in the lucrative US learning resource market were on the horizon but only really hit after 2016 – his Chief Education Officer role was scrapped. I’m not about to blame Barber himself for any of this, but let’s be kind and say that the “mindset that nobody else can do the job” may not be one to entirely distrust.

The digital future

There’s the archetypal “one last job” – Williamson has instructed the outgoing chair to deliver a review of online learning quality, both in terms of the dash for blended in September, and opportunities further afield.

It feels almost unfair to mention “An Avalanche is Coming”, his report for IPPR, at this point. As a rule, I enjoy Barber’s writing for its economy, detachment, and accuracy. I’ve always chosen to believe “Avalanche” was a mis-step, prompted by him being far outside of his comfort zone. At the time I wrote the infamous review for Wonkhe I was immersed in the world of education technology, and quickly recognised the language and concepts of the then all-powerful “disrupt education” industry repeated with little critical thought.

And I bet he’s super glad he didn’t call it “A Pandemic Is Coming”.

Online and blended learning after Covid-19 is not a app, it is not a “revolution”. It is a deadly serious need to offer students and staff who may enter and leave local lockdown several times during the next academic year with a continuity of learning that (let’s admit it) everyone would prefer to be face to face.

As such, it has little to do with Williamson’s “longer term opportunities”, which involves growing a market that – despite substantial investment – remains attractive only to a small and specialised minority. Already I am seeing the “what’s the point of university?” thought-pieces making the rounds again, and if we are to avoid the waste of time and effort that characterised 2012 and 2013 we need to remain grounded in what research and evidence, rather than bluster and rhetoric, tell us.

On this point the Barber of “The Making of the 1944 Education Act” – Barber the academic researcher into the history of education – may be the man we need for the job. The Barber of “Avalanche” has the capacity to make things a lot worse.

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