The Office for Students’ September board papers are out, and we’ve read them so you don’t have to.
Here’s twenty things we picked out that are worthy of noting in the midst of the Brexit maelstrom.
- There’s exciting registration news. As at 16 September, 8 providers had been formally refused (at the time of writing only six of those are public), and another 20 have been sent “minded to refuse” letters – the thing you get before you get the chance to appeal. 20 have been asked to undergo a “quality and standards” review or a “management and governance” review, 45 are on the desk, 16 are incomplete and 19 have just stopped – either because of a merger, or because of “provider request”.
- Meanwhile ongoing monitoring is now fully underway. 25 providers have been slapped with a formal, public condition of registration, 259 (!) are under enhanced monitoring (as described in this weeks documentation), 303 have had a “formal communication” (basically a letter of concern), leaving just 13 of the 387 providers on the register with no mitigations applied at all. Sadly, other than the 25 conditions of registration, we don’t know what the issues are that are in those mitigations, so we also can’t judge whether these tactics will work. OfS is also currently developing its approach to random sampling, sanctions and investigations – and will update the board “in due course”.
- As widely gossiped about, OfS is “currently dealing with several legal challenges” relating to refusals of registration decisions – with the Barking and Dagenham College judgement likely to be the first of many. OfS are of course “confident in resisting those challenges”, though resisting them effectively will “inevitably absorb staff time” – and cost, no doubt. It’s a good thing the regulator has so many lawyers – maybe Nicola Dandridge herself will have to dust off her law degree if times get hard.
- Work is underway on a new business plan – including work on “reviewing the validation system” to ensure that it is fair and transparent and in the interests of students, and work on student contracts. Its review of the admissions system will start with a “substantial consultation exercise” in November, which will include consideration of the use of unconditional offers and conditional unconditional offers, as well the benefits of a post qualification applications system.
- OfS will also be reviewing the role of governance within the sector in the year ahead. OfS is “increasingly aware” of the close connection between “failures in compliance with the regulatory framework, and governance failures”. Over the last year where it has had to intervene because of an increased risk of breach of conditions of registration, there has almost always been an associated failure of governance – whether through lack of oversight or lack of challenge. It will be issuing a report on “persuasive, and less persuasive, evidence of adequate and effective governance arrangements” and will look to “incentivise effective governance practice” that is “fit for purpose” in the new regulatory environment. So far the OfS has been content to allow the Committee of University Chairs to set and monitor governance practice – it looks like more intervention is on the cards.
- On Access and Participation, two providers have been told that Chris Millward has been unable to approve their access and participation plans, following another “minded to refuse” process – although with this one providers have been able to re-submit a revised plan for further consideration within 28 days. Of the 43 APPs that appeared in September, 33 will be subject to enhanced monitoring and 9 have received formal communication identifying issues they need to address in their monitoring reports. Again, we don’t know why and so can’t assess things like consistency in the decision making here.
- OfS has noticed that a UCU strike may be on the way, and whilst it is “not for the OfS to take sides in the dispute”, it will seek to use its powers to ensure “that any industrial action does not adversely impact students’ teaching, learning and assessment”, which is sort of the point of industrial action really.
- There was a presentation on the next stage of the OfS approach to information, advice, and guidance. Given the underwhelming launch of Discover Uni, we imagine that this was quite a lively discussion.
- Data Futures continues to face “significant delivery issues” which impact onward delivery to OfS. Papers note that HESA will not be able to deliver in year data until 2021-22 at the earliest and there are “still considerable questions” about its ability to deliver for 2022-23. It has as a result ceased grant funding for Data Futures until a clear way forward has been identified. The framing of this is strange – the failures in Data Futures are as much from changes in data requirements between the HEFCE and OfS days as they are an issue in HESA or the consultants it manages.
- OfS now has over 10,000 followers on Twitter, with continuing steady increases in its number of followers and engagement with its social media channels. There were162,000 unique visitors to the OfS website in August, with 619,000 visitors between June and August. The most popular pages were the POLAR postcode look-up tool (we’re glad we got the OfS into Tableau…), NSS results and the OfS Register.
- A “piece of work” will be carried out to look at the lessons learned from De Montfort and “other similar cases” (there are “other similar cases”?!) and the outcomes will be shared with the sector. It would be particularly good to see some public scrutiny of the OfS’s first major provider intervention.
- Dame Shirley Pearce’s TEF review will produce a small number of evidenced recommendations, according to the minutes of the previous meeting. There was a further discussion this time round, and oddly whilst it is noted that the review will report to the Secretary of State, it was
“for the OfS board to make final decisions about how it wanted the TEF to support the OfS’s regulatory processes”, and the board “will not be bound by the findings of the review”. Or DfE’s response to it, it seems.
- Similarly from the minutes, we learn that Board members feel “there would be value in carrying out a piece of joint work, linking in as appropriate with the DfE, to measure the social and cultural value of courses that may not deliver high financial return”. This follows the recommendations in the Augar review around subsidy by subject area, and could work as a necessary corrective to LEO.
- As reported in the Wonkhe Daily, the “the biggest overhaul of NSS since its introduction” will take place soon with plans to consult in the spring of next year. In coming months detailed analysis of recent trends will be published, including areas for which levels of satisfaction have increased, and where more work needs to be done to improve students’ experience. Reports will also look at key themes emerging from open-ended student comment sections.The consultation will “respond” to criticisms around whether NSS provides an appropriate proxy for teaching quality in TEF, address “disappointment” that it doesn’t carry enough weight in the TEF, and examine design of the survey – for example, its use of a five point “Likert” scale. OfS will pilot an expanded survey for all undergraduates phased over the next two years, and will carry out comprehensive review and testing of the survey questions (and scales) to ensure they remain fit for purpose, making changes where appropriate. It will also announce plans to explore new survey questions around student mental health and wellbeing.
- OfS is in the news quite a bit, and the July board agreed that the chief executive would give “an oral report” at each meeting on significant planned national media activity expected to take place between board meetings, offering board members the opportunity to discuss the likely approach and “tone” to those stories. Board members also welcomed a more regular updating of the “lines to take” on key issues, and that those lines would be made available to all board members routinely.
- A paper proposing a new approach to funding from academic year 2021-22 and a presentation on the next stage of the information, advice and guidance strategy are both redecated, although we learn from the Quality Committee minutes that OfS will undertake a thematic review of apprenticeship provision in higher education during 2019-20. We also learn that the committee received a paper on the approach that the OfS is taking in its assessment of whether registered providers continue to meet general ongoing condition B3 – because new data had become available since registration decisions for a large number of providers.
- There’s a fun note within student panel papers on “when/should the OfS tell students if a provider was facing difficulty”, noting that the discussion highlighted the complexities in this area – including the OfS “inadvertently exacerbating” issues by putting them into the public domain. A very similar topic was discussed in the Barking and Dagenham ruling, of course. The panel were concerned that the type of provider most likely to be affected by whole provider market exit was also likely to be a provider where there was a greater proportion of disadvantaged students who may have fewer options available to them.
- There’s also a charming summary of the OfS “Horizon Scanning” panel (very much Michael Barber reliving his “an avalanche is coming” glory days), revealing a discussion on “global megatrends”, identified as climate change, population growth, demographics, digital revolution and resource scarcity.
- Back in the minutes we see information about the OfS gender pay gap. As a new organisation, it wasn’t required to publish data last year – but the board heard that “current data identifies a gap that is similar to predecessor organisations and remains a priority for the organisation.”
- And finally – in November the board will chat student contracts, OfS’ student engagement strategy, a presentation on cyber security, the TEF review, student welfare and safeguarding (which was actually supposed to have happened at this meeting), an innovation framework, a paper on “preserving provision” and the OfS’ approach to monetary penalties. It’ll need a couple of breaks, we reckon.