Today the Office for Students publishes its second annual business plan. It sets out our plans for the coming year – in effect our first full year of operation, with all our powers coming into force in August 2019.
If last year was about set-up and registration this year will be about implementation on the issues which affect all students in England – wherever, whatever, and however they study. The plan offers a positive and ambitious agenda for our work in the year ahead. It sets out 24 work areas, giving an overview of some of the outputs of this work as well as explaining the outcomes we want to secure. We are publishing it in order that everyone with an interest in our work can see what we are committing to doing and the impact we are seeking to achieve.
In terms of regulating individual providers, we will be stepping up our work on regulatory interventions where the evidence reveals a significant risk of breach of one of our regulatory conditions – whether in relation to poor quality provision, financial vulnerability or poor leadership and governance. Over the next year we will also be developing our approach to random sampling, developing more effective mechanisms for student transfers between providers, and reviewing information to students about their rights as consumers.
Access and participation in focus
Our focus on fair access and improved outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds continues. Next month the evidence and impact exchange will begin their work. The exchange, led by a consortium from the Behavioural Insights Team along with King’s College London at Nottingham Trent University, will help identify the approaches to fair access and successful outcomes for disadvantaged students which work best. This will help make sure that the efforts universities and other higher education providers make in this area are grounded in solid evidence. This approach reflects the fact that in addressing entrenched disadvantage and inequalities, collaboration and support are an important regulatory mechanism, along with robust regulatory intervention when not enough progress is being made. But whether we adopt a regulatory approach that encourages collaboration or enforces compliance, evidence of impact and effective evaluation are essential.
The OfS has an important role to play in improving the information, advice and guidance students and applicants receive. It is important that students’ decisions are based on high quality, independent advice and guidance. We will launch our own new resource for students and applicants in the autumn, and will continue to develop a survey to deepen the sector’s understanding of the experiences of postgraduate students. Working with our student panel, we will set out in greater detail how we will engage students in the work that we do.
We will also continue our sector-level work to improve student mental health. This is one of the issues that students most frequently raise as being one of the most important issue affecting them, and it is right that we do all we can to work with the sector to prevent or address issues of mental ill-health so as to ensure that students succeed in their studies and gain the most from their higher education experience as a whole. We will continue our funding projects in this area, including managing a new programme which will fund projects which seek innovative approaches to securing a step-changes in mental health outcomes for students.
Alongside this work, there is – of course – a continuation of many of our core processes. The National Student Survey and TEF continue to form a large and important part of our work, and we will be continuing our funding of the National Collaborative Outreach Programme.
Removing red tape
We are also committed to reducing unnecessary administrative burden for universities and other higher education providers wherever we can. It is, of course, true that the registration process has been a significant undertaking on all sides. Registration is a one-off event, and we needed to collect a wealth of information about each provider. We are now in a position where a significant majority of providers are registered. With our approach to monitoring and intervention based on the risk of breaches of regulatory conditions, we can move towards becoming a truly risk-based regulator, with a lower burden for many providers.
Our general approach will remain consistent. Our higher education system is one of this country’s greatest assets. It is precisely because we want it to ensure that that continues to be the case, in an increasingly competitive global environment, that we will not hesitate to intervene when the quality of provision risks falling below our regulatory baseline. We will not allow the narrative of the strength of our higher education system to excuse or condone poor quality provision where it arises.
This is indisputably a time of uncertainty – but we nor sector can afford to let that undermine our efforts to do the best by students. Through the coming year, I look forward to continuing the rich dialogue about how we can make sure we can all be proud of the achievements and progress of English higher education.