The Office for Students’ business plan

Classically tabular, the Office for Students’ business plan lays out – with praiseworthy clarity – what our newest HE regulator plans to do over the 2018/19 academic year. There’s a three-year strategy too.

Much of it should come as little surprise to the seasoned OfS-watcher – the plan is mapped (thoroughly) to the Regulatory Framework, with only the addition of a section on the “efficient and effective operation of OfS as an organisation”. For most, it will be an excuse to tidy up calendars for the transition year, as there are a few new things added from our first attempt to distil such information from a varied abundance of pre-OfS documentation.

Here they are then, our top seven items of note in the OfS business plan.

1. Whither Unistats?

After Sam Gyimah’s off-hand dismissal of the service at the Education Committee inquiry it feels like the writing may be on the wall for the venerable state-owned pre-application information service. Kicked off in 2005 as Teaching Quality Information, then redeveloped (by UCAS), and eventually relaunched as Unistats in 2012 – the service originally included external examiner reports as well as the current data from NSS and HESA, and linked closely with sector quality assurance activity. Unistats exists as a sop to the regulatory mindset that continues to believe (against all available evidence) that prospective students make application decisions based on statistical data.

The business plan simply states that the OfS will “decide approach to Unistats by autumn 2018”. Gyimah may have let the cat out of the bag already with his not-so-subtle hints that the private sector (perhaps via his much-anticipated “app competition”) should disseminate this essential information to prospective students.

2. Intersectional fun for all

Whenever we get to look at statistics drawing on data about student attributes or circumstances, we like to slip in a little complaint about the lack of intersectional groupings. It is perfectly reasonable to want to examine – as Theresa May does – the performance of young, white, working class, males in HE.

It turns out OfS are very much on the case here – and better, more descriptive, measures of multiple disadvantage would be of huge help in policy-making, delivery and evaluation. There’s no date attached to what reads a little like an aspiration, but a lot of people will be looking forward to better data here.

3. Regulator chases headline

Like a list of Times editorials, the OfS has planned work on unconditional offers (reporting by December 2018), degree classifications (end of summer 2018), and trends in senior staff remuneration (also due December 2018). All three are entirely reasonable questions to research – but to be pursuing all of them does smack a little of regulation by ministerial whim.

4. Validating and commissioning

OfS is keen to get its hands dirty with active market intervention. That, at least, is how we could read the plan to make a decision around commissioning HE where new provision is needed (by subject or region, we assume) and getting permission from the Secretary of State to validate provision in cases of last resort.

The commissioning role may link to a more active governmental approach to the size and nature of the market – if we need (for example) a bunch more structural engineers it seems sensible to commission some courses and incentivise students to take them, rather than just wait for the invisible hand to wave in the appropriate direction.

We’d still be surprised to see the validator role ever used – but the fact that OfS is seeking to activate it suggests that it must perceive some need to grant degrees where an existing validatory arrangement has soured. It’s probably too early for it to have particular cases in mind.

5. If you liked the NSS…

Not content with the chance to “decide approach to Unistats”, it looks like we could see a whole new raft of survey instruments trickling student-wards. A survey to capture the views of students in different years (of study, we imagine), social media scraping approaches, the scary sounding “measures based on staff surveys”, and an approach to the implementation of the long expected postgraduate student survey by early 2019.

Clearly the OfS will stop at nothing to get at the authentic, unfettered, voice of the student. Save, perhaps, drawing on the work of students themselves drawn together in some kind of a union…

6. TEaSOF tees off

Plans for the application process for year four of TEF (the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework) are already underway. Targets remain for TEF3 results in June of this year, and the first year of subject pilots will conclude by December. But there’s no mention at all of any preparation for the statutory review of TEF scheduled for 2019.

7. Building the regulator

Allow me to briefly geek out about management methodologies. Management of stuff in government used to happen at one of three levels – project (PRINCE2), programme (MSP) and portfolio (MoP). The three listed approaches epitomised old-school belt-and-braces delivery control – but departed from fashionable circles a few years back to be replaced by the hideous ungovernable mess of software developer wish-fulfilment that is (mis-)labelled “agile”.

I share this as a path into my delight that OfS have – by admission in their own plan – already established a portfolio management office (April 2018). Does this mean that they will have projects and programmes too? Is managing things properly making a welcome return? Two thumbs up from the trained MSP and PRINCE2 practitioners here.

OfS will also be adding to their enviable Board-level legal expertise by setting up an in-house legal function (June 2018). The Data Strategy – due out for consultation imminently – will be finalised by December 2018.

And OfS hope to “do a HESA” and apply for designation as an official statistics producer by 20th May 2018. It’s not clear what official statistics they hope to be publishing that HESA don’t publish already.

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