A short guide to the Office for Students’ new powers

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) fundamentally changed the way higher education is regulated in England. While the Bill became law in 2017, we at the Office for Students have held our full powers for only a month. We’ve set a clear direction and strategy but, quite understandably, the higher education sector is still getting used to the very significant changes that the new regulatory system brings.

Real progress has been made. As of today, 386 universities, colleges and other higher education providers are on the register. That means that over 99 per cent of students who are continuing courses from 2018-19 are studying at an OfS-registered provider.

There are a small number of providers with continuing students that do not yet have a final registration decision. There are several possible reasons for this. Some providers have only recently applied for registration. For others, we need to gather further evidence that the initial conditions of registration are satisfied, either from the provider itself, from the designated quality body, or from a review of management and governance arrangements. We are not permitted to register a provider until we are able to confirm that each initial condition is satisfied and gathering further evidence to do this can take time. There is a final group where we have told providers that we are minded to refuse their application for registration. We’re required by law to seek and fully consider representations about such a provisional decision and this too can take time.

We’ve put in place arrangements to protect continuing students at providers that have applied for registration but do not yet have a final decision. The same arrangements are also in place for providers that have not made an application for registration but have students continuing courses into 2019-20. We’re using powers delegated to us by the Secretary of State that allow us to designate courses for student support purposes – this is the statutory power that DfE previously used to allow access to student loan funding for providers that we used to call ‘alternative providers’. These powers are separate to the HERA powers we use for registration and we are only able to use them in defined circumstances. But they are important powers, and we’re using them specifically to ensure that students can continue with their studies without disruption.

Limited designation

‘Limited designation’ allows continuing eligible students at providers which were not registered by 31 July 2019 to receive student support. This designation was put in place before 31 July, to ensure seamless support for these students. This designation is ‘limited’ as it will only remain in place until we have made a final registration decision (and, if necessary, while the provider makes an application for designation for teach-out), unless we need to take earlier action to protect the student interest, or public funds, in which case we may suspend or revoke the designation.

We don’t name providers with limited designation. That’s because they are in the middle of a formal regulatory process until we have reached a final registration decision and it’s not appropriate for us to comment on their status. Providers are, of course, free to speak with their students about their situation and we have asked them to do so to ensure that students understand the provider’s regulatory status.

Designation for teach-out

If a provider is refused registration we give it the opportunity to apply for designation for ‘teach-out’ purposes. A period of ‘teach-out’ allows existing students to continue to access student support for the course they are studying. This process requires a provider to meet eligibility criteria and a number of initial and ongoing requirements. If designation for teach-out is granted this gives certainty to the provider, and its students, about continued access to student support for the teach-out period.

Sometimes, the period of designation may end before all students have completed their course. Where this happens, the provider must have an approved student transfer plan in place which sets out in detail how it will support students should they need to consider transferring to another provider in order to complete their course.

Working with providers

We will monitor designated providers to ensure that our requirements continue to be met. Our student protection and market exit team is leading on this work as part of our commitment to students that their interests will be protected in the event of provider, campus, or course closure.

Decisions about registration – whether to approve or refuse applications – are not taken lightly. Registration with the OfS brings a range of significant benefits for providers and important protections for students. So, while we will conclude registration decisions as quickly as possible, we won’t do anything that reduces the rigour and robustness of our decision-making. That’s the right thing to do, for current and future students. It is their interests that will continue to guide all our work.

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