One of the more stark differences between HEFCE and the OfS is the latters’ ostensible bias towards the interests of students, rather than providers. But students could be forgiven for not noticing so far.
The OfS has already been caught up in debates about marketisation. And the news that Downing Street SpAds actively blocked anyone that had been near a students’ union or NUS from being on its board, now looks like an own goal – especially given Nicola Dandridge spent the autumn touring students’ unions, and the minister launched the OfS with the NUS President. But setting aside the last few months, what will really matter is what the OfS does (or doesn’t do), and things have moved on significantly since the regulatory framework consultation was published last year.
There’s an old trade union theory about the goals they pursue for their members – there are participation goals, which are focussed on representation rights, and money goals, which seek to improve workers’ living and working conditions. On the former, there’s some good news in the framework. Several students’ unions argued in their responses that well-designed governance “in the public interest” should start by identifying the principle beneficiaries of an organisation, and then seek to give them a voice in decision making.
The result is that “student engagement” has been added to the list of principles, with the governing body having to ensure that “all students have opportunities to engage with the governance of the provider, and that this allows for a range of perspectives to have influence”. It suggests this as an indicative behaviour (an “expectation”), with the requirement stopping just short of requiring student membership of boards (unlike in Further Education, where corporations have to have two or three student members). However, it’s difficult to imagine meaningful compliance with the principle without it – and enthusiastic compliance should see students involved in sub-committees and informal discussions previously conducted in closed session.
Given the character of UK HE and the recognition that outcomes for students are co-produced individually and collectively, many students’ unions argue that student engagement and representation within the student academic experience should be seen as an outcome, rather than a process in any baseline regime, expectations, code or standards that are developed. Providers with degree-awarding powers are already required to demonstrate that academic governance (including all aspects of the control and oversight of its higher education provision), is “conducted in partnership with its students”.
But there’s been an ongoing discussion about the quality code, and its suitability to the OfS as a way of assessing quality and standards conditions for all providers. In the draft code, student engagement was controversially reduced to; “views and feedback from students are regularly sought and acted on and providers offer feedback in return”. The good news is that “OfS has decided to adopt the expectations and core practices in the revised version of the … quality code”, and the agreed wording of one of the core practices relates to student engagement; ‘the provider actively engages students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience.’ It seems that staff-student liaison committees will live to fight another day.
When it comes to money goals, the picture is also more positive. Students will be pleased that when it comes to student protection plans, it’s not just institutional failure that providers have to think about – course closures, “material components” of one or more courses, and modes of study, will all have to be risk-assessed and proposed mitigation steps demonstrated. Providers running content with single “star” lecturers are warned in the documents about the risks if they leave.
But there are still problems here – there’s no talk of arrangements for/compensation for students having to move to study in a new location, nothing on comparability of student outcomes when securing alternative provision, silence on ongoing progression opportunities that might have been offered (especially where these lead to employment), and nothing on ongoing monitoring of “teach-out” arrangements once they kick in. Overall it will be little comfort to students that providers will have a say in what they’ll do in the event of an exit, but won’t be monitored on arrangements for preventing it.
On student contracts, we get a glimpse of how the regulator will seek to enforce the law.
Firstly although OfS’ second objective remains focussed on the academic experience, the objectives as a whole will be interpreted to enable sector level work on things like mental health and support services- and the contracts provision will mean that providers have to be clearer on their promises in these wider areas so that students can ensure those promises are met. As with the freedom of speech duty, the OfS will ask providers to actively demonstrate legal compliance – and contracts are to cover academic services “and other contracts … part of the higher education experience, including but not limited to contracts governing the provision of accommodation, disability support packages, scholarships, sports facilities and additional course costs”.
Questions remain here too – on which students consumer law covers (work-based learners – especially those on degree apprenticeships – might not count), which elements of the student experience are the “product”, and how student Davids would access support in the event of claims against provider Goliaths (and how they would know about their rights, to begin with). Helpfully, the OfS seems to have taken seriously arguments about the “imbalance of power and information”, and the need to “ensure that students have access to impartial advocacy and advice” – and although the response palms fixing this off on to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) and its good practice framework, there’s scope to explore complainant confidence in the future – with a focus on dispute resolution rather than ambulance chasers.
On value for money, the framework itself is almost as thin as the consultation suggested it would be. Efficiency studies and benchmarking remain the tools OfS intends to use to reduce the risks, and the framework goes no further than the consultation in making clear that a provider must publish “clear information about its arrangements for securing value for money”, including “data about the sources of its income and the way that this is used”.
But again there are questions here that students will want answers to – whether all of their financial transactions are covered, whether anything can be done about unanticipated costs, and whether the data they’ll get might be meaningfully compared both across institutions and across providers. But this is a developing agenda – and direct levers might have been hasty. The need to publish a “transparency statement” survives the consultation, and the OfS is “committing to ongoing reflection on the various issues raised by providers and student bodies in relation to value for money as a concept”, as well as using the research I’ve been involved with on student perceptions about VFM “as a platform for further research and exploration”.
Overall, there are of course some that disagree with a “market” regulator at all, and others that will have been turned off by its difficult birth. And there are elements which the OfS obviously needs more time to get right. But playing the ball where it lies, students and students’ unions ought to be pleased with these outcomes. It may be turning into an Office for Students after all.