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Twelve things we learned from July’s OfS board papers

The Office for Students has published board papers for July, and David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson have had a read so you don't have to.
This article is more than 2 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Do you remember the good old days, when the publication of Office for Students board papers would tell us interesting things about how the sector is being regulated?

Condition E2 of OfS’ regulatory framework says that reports and minutes should be in the public domain, and the designation of material as “confidential” should be kept to the minimum necessary. Sadly that applies to providers, not OfS itself – and this time around six out of eleven papers and two annexes are marked “exempt from publication”.

Still, there’s a couple of nuggets in the papers from the 23rd meeting of the OfS board from 13 July 2021 – including the return of over £1m in student hardship funding to OfS that was supposed to go to students.

Eyes down, look in.

Minutes from 13 May 2021

By May, OfS CEO Nicola Dandridge was reporting that there had been a decrease in the number of “notifications” being received from students and other third parties – OfS was still following up with providers where issues of “poor quality” during lockdown may have been identified, but previous promises to reveal the scale, nature and examples of these have disappeared. Maybe we’ll never know what OfS was counting as “poor quality” in the ‘rona years.

Relations with DfE at least look like they’ve thawed a little – the department was “involving the OfS in its policy development and thinking”, particularly “around the free speech agenda and on the Lifelong Loan Entitlement”. It’s the sort of thing you’d only note if it wasn’t doing so previously.

It’s almost three years ago to the day that OfS Director of External Relations Conor Ryan took to our site to “embark on a programme to develop options for a future feedback survey for postgraduate taught students”. What’s odd is that the national pilot that ran in May 2019 is barely mentioned here, with Ryan proposing here that another pilot questionnaire be developed, sitting alongside work being done on the main NSS questions in the

second phase of the NSS review. No sniff of anything on PGRs, still.

Chief executive’s report

In Nicola Dandridge’s update, we discover that work continues in relation to the development of OfS’ new strategy, with an increasing focus on engaging OfS staff in its development in July prior to the publication of a “public consultation on the proposals in September”. That’s a deadline that’s already been missed.

The latest OfS risk report was an Annex B, but it’s redacted. All we know is that OfS was managing some “significant” risks, and that some of those risks relate to “delivery due to the increasing volume and complexity of demands on the organisation”, alongside “limited resources and capacity”. They may as well have redacted that summary as well, to be honest.

Discover Uni is a website aimed at applicants to higher education and those who advise them. Over the last year there have been 10,300 downloads of targeted pdf resources from the site, and although Nicola Dandridge does not draw the comparison in the paper it feels like we should mention that UCAS reported something in the region of 700k applicants during that year. It’s also ironic that OfS still don’t usually mention Wonkhe articles in their press round up, as a fair few of them have been read more times than Discover Uni resources.

Remember the additional allocations of student hardship funding – £70m last academic year if you don’t count the infamous “£256m” that Michelle Donelan was so fascinated with? Providers were asked to report on the use of this funding, with unused funding (or funding used outwith the terms and conditions of the scheme) clawed back by the regulator. In total, £1.66m was returned to OfS – providers were given the opportunity to appeal but a slightly startling 88 didn’t bother appealing.

Of the additional £15m made available on 27 April, it emerged that Writtle University College reported that it would be unable to distribute their allocation before the 31 July deadline. The Office for Students, as a considerate and principled regulator, took pity on the college and agreed an extension – no, only kidding, they reclaimed £12,006. So if you are a student at Writtle who struggled with rent and living costs last year, this is a thing that happened.

Annex C, which lists funding decisions made using the scheme of delegation between May and June also includes a decision to set the Uni Connect budget at “$40m” – more likely to be a typo than evidence of the regulator dabbling in forex speculation.

OfS strategy 2022-25

This one was a paper seeking the board’s view on the development of OfS’ new strategy. Sadly as a bit of policy in development, it’s exempt from publication. The good news is that OfS intends to publish its new strategy in January 2022, which is good because as far as we know its last business plan actually ran out back in March.

Quality and standards policy

This was a paper updating the board on phase two of the consultation on proposals for the future regulation of quality and standards. This was exempt from publication as policy in development, but the results have since emerged – we covered them on the site in July.

Funding update

This was an update to the board on the outcomes of the consultations on recurrent and capital funding and an overview of the proposed approach for reviewing targeted funding for specialist providers. It’s another that’s exempt from publication as policy in development – we’ll know more when a consultation on funding for specialist providers concludes.

Annual review of equality objectives and action plan

This covers both internal issues like recruitment at the regulator, and OfS’ work on EDI in relation to the providers it regulates – and buried in here is a really interesting row between government and OfS on equality.

The paper notes, for example, that back in February Gavin Williamson had written to OfS to remind it that:

…it has a statutory duty to have regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity, not

equality of outcome…Throughout all of its work, including access and participation, the OfS should be guided by the approach to equality of opportunity set out by the Minister for Women and Equalities in her speech of 17 December, one that is rooted in liberty, agency, and fairness….The OfS should reflect upon the extent to which its policies and procedures are aligned with this approach as it plans its future activity”

That Liz Truss speech had said:

I am outlining a new approach to equality in this country. It will be about individual dignity and humanity, not quotas and targets, or equality of outcome….Too often, the equality debate has been dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices, and by those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic, and not by their individual character….The focus on protected characteristics has led to a narrowing of the equality debate that overlooks socio-economic status and geographic inequality….It will deliver a new life-path analysis of equality from the perspective of the individual, not groups. Using longitudinal data sets will help us understand where the real problems lie.”

But in a nice bit of bureaucratic rebukery, the paper says:

We categorise students into groups within our guidance and data because this reflects the

statutory basis for access and participation plans, which in s.32 of HERA refers to ‘members of groups which, at the time when the plan is approved, are under-represented in higher education’. Also the need, for the purpose of efficiency and effectiveness, to target our resources and those of universities and colleges on students from specific groups as the route to supporting individuals within these groups. It is not possible to identify patterns of performance, to target resources and to evaluate activity by focusing on individuals alone.”

And on that equality of opportunity v equality of outcomes issue, we get:

The Regulatory Framework describes the overall OfS approach to regulation as outcomes based and we have framed our reforms to access and participation regulation as a shift from focusing on inputs (particularly the amount of money spent) towards outcomes, in terms of reducing the gaps between the most and least represented groups in relation to access,

student success and progression. This is appropriate for a diverse and autonomous sector, within which there may be many different approaches to achieving high quality outcomes for students. It is also consistent with the promotion of equality of opportunity because we need to use our resources efficiently and effectively, and that requires us to demonstrate that our regulation is leading to improvements to equality of opportunity over time”

So there! We’ll await to see if the forthcoming announcement of the replacement for Chis Millward heralds any shift in… emphasis.

Also included is a summary version of the blog that Millward wrote a whole ago on the relationship between where you come from, where you go to university and your opportunities for a well-paid graduate job – a blog that Johnny Rich argued “deftly plants a megaton explosion under the Govt’s ongoing sniper campaign against large parts of higher education – and a section on harassment that seems to dodge the fact that the government isn’t too keen on anonymous harassment reporting, being told about microaggressions or bystander training.

There’s also a fun section on the Sewell report (“the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities”) that frames the complete and yawning absence of discussion in that report of attainment gaps as “OfS work on race and ethnic disparities extends beyond the issues identified in the report”, which is one way of putting it.

Update on OfS people

This one was a presentation from the Head of Human Resources and Organisational Development. The sides aren’t available, and we don’t know why. Maybe it was delivered via interpretive dance, but even then we’d expect a TikTok.

Finance report

This was an update to the board on the OfS’ Programme and Administration funding, but it’s exempt from publication. Full financial disclosure will be made in the OfS’ annual report and accounts.

Report from the Provider Risk Committee

This was the regular report to the board on the work of the OfS’ Provider Risk Committee – but it’s exempt from publication as it contains “legally privileged information”.

Report from the Quality Assessment Committee

The Quality Assessment Committee generally exists to keep an eye on the QAA, which does the actual quality assessment bit in England. It noted the QAA’s third annual report as the Designated Quality Body, and the Year 3 Quarter 4 report as the DQB. Usually that, plus a tweak to the key performance measures, is all we can expect from this sleepiest of sub-committees – but this time round the idea that OfS should be “more present” in public debates around essay mills and set out a “sector level” response appears to have sneaked through the torpor.

Some members of the QAC were lucky enough to sit on a “small reading group” to input into the development of quality and standards proposals by OfS. The bit where they said “what about the Quality Code as an internationally recognised definition of quality in higher education with the full support of the sector” would have been worth reflecting on.

Report from the Risk and Audit Committee

The Risk and Audit Committee report dates back to May 2021, so much of what was reported to the Board dates back to the very early days of the Wharton era. The mention of “slower than expected progress” on Data Futures was covered in more depth at the last Board meeting.

A big chunk of the May 2021 meeting was a closed session with the National Audit Office and the OfS’ internal audit function. We are told elsewhere that no significant issues were reported.

Report from the Remuneration and Nominations Committee

And finally, a report to the board on the work of the OfS’ Remuneration and Nominations Committee. This one’s also exempt from publication – if you’re interested, relevant remuneration information will be made in OfS’ annual report and accounts.

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