24 things we learned from September’s OfS board papers

The Office for Students has published board papers for September, and David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson have had a read so you don't have to.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

Do you remember the good ole’ days, when England’s higher education regulator would publish its board papers – and we would read them for you and pull out the important bits that signalled what was going on in Nicholson House?

Like many an organisation that starts out intending to be transparent, the proportion of what remains redacted and what is actually revealed feels like it’s shifted towards the former over the past year or so – but nevertheless a new batch has emerged and we’ve found what we can.

No mention of industrial action in any of this, by the way. Total surprise, bolt out of the blue, etc.

Minutes from 13 July 2021

First up the minutes from the summer meeting, the papers from which we reviewed here.

On the discussion of CEO Nicola Dandridge’s report, we learn that OfS was prepping up to look for any signs of [the impact of] grade inflation in providers’ admissions behaviour – with a promise to act if there was evidence of providers “looking to accommodate” large numbers which may then impact on quality of provision or the student experience. It’s an odd framing given the legal pressures to admit once an offer is made, but we’ll see what happened next when we come to the next item.

We also learn that the use of TEF grades in providers’ marketing material will be “monitored” and individual providers contacted if this is seen to be “inappropriate”. That’s code for “actually happening” given the data underpinning TEF awards is now so old that OfS has told providers to hide their awards – like that’s the only issue with the TEF in relation to reliable signalling for students.

There’s a little bittersweet sentence that says that “full non-continuation data will not be available until next year”, which serves to remind us that we are still some considerable distance from Michael Barber’s live data dashboards that were supposed to be provided via Data Futures. Later we are told that “the Data Futures programme is progressing, but this is slower than planned”, which is an evergreen minute if ever we’ve seen one.

In the discussion on the strategy, the main highlighted contribution was the Board was to stress that while it was important that strategy did not lose its main focus on protecting the interest of students, it also needed to “better reflect the OfS’s role in protecting and advancing wider public interests and its engagement with stakeholders”. That helps to explain some of what we saw when it emerged last week, and is a telling indication of the extent to which OfS’ name remains faulty – particularly under its current governance.

In the July meeting the board discussed proposals on Quality and Standards that were published later that month – we looked in detail at them on the site at the time. Two board contributions seem to have then made it into subsequent speeches and comms – one making clear that OfS can have an impact on sector behaviour by “stating its intention to act and use its powers” (this will “encourage compliance from good providers who will wish to disassociate themselves from those not conforming or seeking to exploit loopholes”) and “some early examples” of OfS effectively applying its regulatory powers will “reinforce its message” on quality and standards. We’re obviously excited to see who gets singled out and made an example of as soon as that consultation reports back.

And in the discussion on OfS’ people report, we learn that there has been a 7 percent reduction in the gender pay gap since last year, that OfS staff will be spending 60 percent of time homeworking and 40 percent in the office, and that given 67 percent of OfS staff are female, an EDI target has been set with the aim of creating a better gender balance through an increase in the appointment of men.

Chief executive’s report

It’s not quite Nicola Dandridge’s valedictory final report to the board, and as such the focus is on the usual mix of publications, activity, and press coverage (it is notable how much importance the Board places on press coverage).

There are a few interesting pieces of information – most notably a reminder about the National Audit Office review of the “financial sustainability of higher education in England”, which will include conclusions regarding whether DfE and OfS are collectively managing systemic risks (Here’s the full scope as a reminder). Dandridge tells us that that OfS is cooperating fully (as it is required to) and that the report will include an examination of the work done during the Covid-19 pandemic.

An update on examnishambles 2 – it was noted that the significant growth in some providers and courses, coupled with a cohort who have had eighteen months of disrupted education, made it likely that providers would need to give students additional support both in transitioning to higher education and in making up for lost learning.

“We are monitoring for indications of rapid significant growth within individual providers” is as unhelpful a phrase as any that ever suggests that OfS “monitors” anything – “and will consider whether intervention is necessary if we see patterns suggesting that such growth is likely to have a negative effect on the quality of students’ academic experience”. This arguably remains a major weak spot in OfS’ regulatory activity, an issue we looked at on the site in September.

Dates for your diary – the OfS Annual Review will be out on 1 December, and is sure to be on everyone’s Christmas list (we’re looking forward to the Board awayday photostory). We’re also due an “imminent” (this was in September, so temper your excitement accordingly) announcement of the new Director of Fair Access and Participation.

Remember the capital allocation bidding competition? Before the 10 September deadline OfS received 164 bids for a total of £269m – with the total available already set at £145.5m deadline for submitting a bid was 10 September 2021. The intention was that providers would be notified of their success or otherwise in late October – this information has yet to reach the public realm.

The delegated decision making report notes the usual clutch of tweaks to OfS allocation – for example the University of Greenwich secured an extra £152 this year, and Cranfield lost nearly £400k with respect to 2018-19 and 2019-20. These adjustments generally reflect updated student data rather than any change in policy.

Table 3 details some of those controversial clawbacks to student hardship funding 2020-21 – mystifyingly the Heart of Worcestershire College appears twice, which we assume is a compilation error.

Annex A cannot be published for copyright reasons (?), and Annex B is redacted as it is concerned with provider risk.

Presentation on regulating student outcomes

Sadly, this presentation to the board on the approach OfS is developing for its consultation on regulating student outcomes is redacted – the actual approach will be issued “in the autumn”.

Report on findings from A&P monitoring

OfS actually has an event coming up on 30 November where it will share Access and Participation Plan monitoring findings – so this paper very much provides a trailer for that.

As well as a lot of background (including a reminder that in September the access gap between students coming from areas of lowest HE participation and areas of highest participation increased) we learn that performance against the targets in the APP was not reported by 1.51 percent of providers, was at the “expected” level in 57.89 percent of providers, showed limited progress in 22.31 percent of providers and there was no progress in 18.29 percent.

Those numbers are of course meaningless unless we know the size of the targets, and how much they’ve been missed by – ideally OfS in the future would tell us how the sector is doing on aggregated targets on each underrepresented/underachieving group and then how it’s doing against those.

We do learn that OfS identified four providers at higher risk of non-compliance with their conditions of registration – due to a lack of information, worsening outcomes for students and/or unsatisfactory explanations on whether they had taken all reasonable steps to honour the commitments made to students.

As usual, we don’t know who they are, but three of them are getting a letter – and OfS was at the the time exploring options for regulatory intervention with respect to one provider where the information provided in the monitoring return “raised concerns about the credibility” of the measures set out in its most recent access and participation plan to address the worsening position for under-represented students.

As well as a run through some of the good stuff providers duid during the pandemic and a look at emerging issues for his successor, outgoing director for fair access and participation Chris Millward leaves a telling note in the handover file which reflects the different directions in which providers can tend to be pulled by the regulator:

As we implement the new OfS strategy, we will also want to ensure that our approach to quality and standards and equality of opportunity are integrated and reinforce each other…we will want also to demonstrate more clearly our expectations of providers in areas where they are highlighting potential tensions, for example addressing attainment gaps while upholding standards.

As part of the monitoring process students were asked to directly input via a voluntary student submission for each provider, intended as a pilot before full implementation. Encouragingly, OfS received a submission from students at approximately half of the providers with a 2019-20 plan (118 student submissions) – and where OfS was made aware of student concerns, it noted these in outcomes letters and encouraged providers to further consider the issues raised in partnership with students. That sounds a lot like the way in which the old QAA student written submission used to elevate the concerns of students in providers – if only the rest of OfS would use this kind of approach.

Free speech

We learn here that a paper went to the board considering the approach OfS should take to issues of free speech and academic freedom ahead of the implementation of the provisions of the government’s proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

For some reason this is marked “exempt from publication – locally sensitive information”, an exemption that will be reviewed “when [if?] the Freedom of Speech Bill is passed”. But that makes no sense since the paper and discussion was supposedly on what happens in the meantime?

Financial sustainability of registered providers

Financial sustainability monitoring during the pandemic was focused, rightly, on the short-term issues facing providers. Though some of the direst scenarios forecast widespread financial pain, the sector is broadly in better shape than expected. OfS usual remit is to look at the 3-5 year horizon, and this paper details the proposed approach to getting back to this style of monitoring.

The proposal is to use data that OfS already holds – either itself, or via historical data from HESA and recruitment trends from UCAS – to construct a very sophisticated financial model of each provider. The regulator can then chuck these into a number of scenarios and see how the models react – the example given is a decline in recruitment from China, but there are surely many others (not least those risks stemming from government policy!).

Old sector hands will recall the old HEFCE financial stability ratings – however these were based on what was a fairly stable state. It feels like OfS are building something that can deal with a wider variety of exogenous shocks and this (although concerning in the abstract) should be applauded.

We learn – in passing – that the regulator intervened in a small number of cases to put in place protections for students at risk from market exit, and that OfS has an established communication channel with major sector lenders.

Finance report

This update to the board on OfS’ Programme and Administration funding is also marked exempt from publication. Full financial disclosure will be made in OfS’ annual report and accounts.

Oral reports from the Quality Assessment Committee and the Risk and Audit Committee

No papers, no exemption. See you for the minutes next time around.

Publication of information about individual providers

Finally, a discussion marked “Closed session: Exempt from publication. Legally privileged”. We reckon this might refer to the similarly named consultation that closed back in March 2021 and has yet to see the light of day (scheduled for the commendably broad Winter/Spring 2021/22). We can only imagine what that’s about.

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