David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

One of the criticisms I’ve had for launching a sector debate on provider classifications is that it is all a bit, well, academic.

OfS’ latest consultation is on one of their own provider classifications – specifically the conception of “world-leading specialist” providers that will underpin the allocation of a specific funding stream – the whole allocation from 2022-23 onwards, and the additional £5m available in 2021-21. Classifications, it seems, have big policy and funding implications.

What’s a world-leading specialist?

As funding streams go, this is an older one – first introduced way back in the late nineties in recognition of the particular costs specialist providers have in delivering teaching. This was last reviewed in 2015-16, but with the OfS-curated influx of newer specialist providers it is long overdue another examination. It is a funding stream that Gavin Williamson was mysteriously keen on, with an uplifting putting the current allocation at £48m across 16 lucky providers.

It’s the likes of IHE members that stand likely to benefit from a new look at the funding stream – I asked Alex Proudfoot what he made of it:

We would support the elements of the consultation that reserve funding for smaller providers who can’t benefit from economies of scale and yet provide vital niche and bespoke education and training – often for high growth nascent sectors, or prestige industries.

Securing the confidence of the many specialist providers, including household names, who have historically been excluded from this funding stream, will require a very high level of transparency, the involvement of industry experts, and clear evidence of unbiased judgements from the new panel that will be established to oversee it.

A wider debate should follow about the role of specialist providers in education and the economy following the consultation, and their impact on job creation, teaching excellence and social mobility.”

Specialist, small

In order to fund these providers, OfS needs to be able to identify them – and the posited factors include:

  • Specialism
  • Small size
  • World-leading quality

Specialism can easily be measured by looking at student numbers across top level subjects – the OfS suggests a specialist provider will have 75 per cent of full-time provision (FTE students) in one broad subject area or 90 per cent in two broad subject areas. These measures would include students studying at all levels at the provider, including on further education courses – only level 2 courses in English and maths are specifically excluded. Broad subject areas are, as you might expect, CAH1.

OfS has kindly let us know which providers are eligible under this proposed rule:

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The measure for smallness will be derived using the same population. Previously HEFCE did not take size into account although funding was available with respect to a maximum of 500 FTE eligible students (something like this will remain for this allocation too, though the OfS is keen to add a consideration of price groups). Here the consultation asks the sector about the notion of focusing on smaller providers, and having earlier noted the higher unit costs for smaller providers it is not difficult to guess the answer that is hoped for. OfS is here concerned that some “world leading providers” may be impossible to reasonably define as “small”, and yet still face the issues that other specialist providers face. The reader will note the postulated use of this funding stream to supplement some of the enormous losses some providers in London face with the demise of London weighting, bearing in mind the graph above.

Despite the use of this wider population on eligibility, actual funding will flow based on a formula linked to the number of OfS-fundable students – as currently. It is entirely possible for a provider therefore to be eligible but not fundable, or fundable in such a way that would not be eligible under a rule that examined only higher education provision. The level of funding would either fluctuate according to eligible student numbers, or stay at a flat rate – that’s out for consultation.


Defining “world-leading” may be a little more complicated. To cabinet members, “world leading” simply means English – but OfS is concerned with a genuine and enduring case for “world leading teaching”. In the bad old days HEFCE might have used the results of a recent review by the Quality Assurance Agency – in this moment of data-led, responsive, regulation OfS needs to face up to the uncomfortable truth that it has no idea what “world leading teaching” might look like.

It is notable that the Teaching Excellence Framework does not merit a mention, other than in a single footnote justifying the use of an assessment panel.

And – yes – it is the qualitative world of assessing claims to “world leading teaching” via a panel (chaired by a board member and with another – or a member of the executive – as deputy chair. This panel will be populated via nominations from representative bodies and other regulations and funding bodies, and can draw on advice from other experts as required. OfS is hoping for nominations by next month, establishing the panel during winter 2021 to enable it to meet in 2022 to inform funding announcements in the spring.

If a provider is eligible under the size and specialism rules, it can make a submission to the panel to argue for “world leading” status based on:

  • Reputation
  • Graduate skills, knowledge, and impact
  • Contribution to the development of a specialism
  • The integral nature of small, specialist, status to world-leading status

There would also be the opportunity to provide two referees, and the panel can make use of any other publicly available information about a provider it deems appropriate. There’s no appeals process.

Those providers that successfully make the case will be eligible for funding for five years before they have to apply again, providing they stay registered with the OfS in the Approved (fee cap) category. Should any other providers enter the register and express an interest, they’d have to wait until the next assessment exercise in five years time.

Information gaps

The use of “world-leading” teaching in this exercise is at odds with the current crop of definitions of teaching excellence in terms of output measures. It’s the first time in a long while that OfS has expressed a real interest in the quality of what happens in the classroom, lab, or studio – and what others think of it. It is notable that none of the existing measures – TEF, proceed – are deemed to be useable here, and one factor in this may be the preponderance of arts-based providers in this part of the sector.

It all rather prompts the question – if outputs are not suitable to measure teaching quality in this exercise, why are they deemed suitable elsewhere? And why would absolute output measures be used by an organisation that clearly recognises that arts outcomes are not comparable to others?

5 responses to “What is a “world class specialist” provider?

  1. One reason for not using TEF is that some of the current (and identified as potential) recipients of this fund don’t qualify for it. Cranfield and the Institute for Cancer Research, as examples, don’t have any undergraduates.

  2. Good analysis, David. I think what’s also interesting re ‘world-leading teaching’ especially in arts subjects is whether this means ‘better’ or just ‘more’ with much higher contact hours.

  3. A comment on the regional view. A number of the providers listed have multiple campus locations. For example, ACM has campuses in Guildford, London and Birmingham. One point for the consultation is that a specialist piece of equipment may need to be purchased multiple times for multiple sites which themselves could vary significantly in size. The OfS methodology does not yet have a way of capturing this information as data sets are all submitted at a group level. It could be a missed opportunity to level-up if this is not addressed.

    1. The OfS verify the HESES data set (assuming this is what you are referring to) against the location information in the HESA Student/Student Alternative return, so I imagine they would take this into consideration when they do the HESES recreation during the submission period.
      Although you have inadvertently raised another point Gordon, what happens when you have a partially franchised FTE, is the funding restricted to the specific location that is not franchised? I’ll be very interested to see how all of this pans out.

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