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The government has published a response to the “HE Reform” consultation from 2022, drawing on views expressed in 318 responses.

There’s also an equality analysis.

Alongside this we have a more detailed external consultation analysis performed by York Consulting, and an analysis of the cost of delivering foundation years from IFF Consulting.

Trailed as action on “rip-off” courses over the weekend, there’s surprisingly little that is new in these plans.

“Rip off” courses

The OfS is an independent regulator, and thus the government cannot direct it to do anything. It can, however, issue guidance (of both statutory and general persuasions). So ministers will – via statutory guidance – ask the OfS to consider using recruitment limits as one among many possible sanctions for providers that are currently under investigation under suspicion of having breached registration condition B3.

OfS already has the power to impose recruitment limits, and has done so on four occasions – one of which, at Burton and South Derbyshire College, is still in place. The other three limits have now been lifted. The equality analysis clarifies that any future imposition of limits would be achieved “using the Office for Students’ existing powers.”

This could happen as soon as this month, when DfE expects OfS will publish the outcomes of the first tranche of B3 “boots on the ground” investigation. But even then – number controls will only be applied “if proportionate and depending on the facts of the case.” Caps will not be applied without a prior investigation, and will not be applied based only on the available data.

In the same statutory guidance, OfS will be asked to consider using earnings data as part of its quality regime. There are two possible sources of this data – the DfE Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data and the HESA Graduate Outcomes data. Each of these has numerous well-documented drawbacks.

Level 4 and 5 courses

The Department asked whether the fee limits for courses at level four and level five (particularly thinking about higher technical qualifications (HTQs). It has decided not to make any changes to fee levels at this time, so HTQs will be on a par – in funding terms – with undergraduate degrees from this academic year.

Minimum eligibility requirements

The consultation also included a lot of thinking about minimum eligibility requirements (MERs), which are a means of limiting access to student loans based on prior attainment either at level two (GCSE) or level three (A level). The consultations responses were not positive about the idea (exhibiting a slight preference for a non-subject level three tariff).

The government maintains that “a minimum eligibility requirement could help to ensure

that students are prepared to gain advantage from degree-level study” but concludes that if the sector responds to the other measures in this statement then MERs are not needed “at this point in time.”

Foundation year fee and loan limits

All kinds of providers use foundation years (sub-degree provision aimed at students who do not meet the usual entry requirements for a course), and the Augar review noted that these are expensive in comparison to alternative routes (like, for example, the Access to Higher Education courses offered in further education).

Consultation responses were split 60:40 towards leaving fee cap levels for foundation years at £9,250 – equivalent to a year of undergraduate provision. Despite this, and despite independent research that shows all foundation year provision had an equal or higher cost of delivery compared to other undergraduate programmes, DfE has decided to reduce “classroom based” foundation year fee caps to £5,760 from 2025-26.

What is meant by “classroom based” is provision in Office for Students price group D only, so subjects like humanities, business, or social sciences. Most science, technology, engineering, and medical provision is in price groups A, B, and C. Most creative arts, mathematics, languages, archeology, and pre-registration nursing courses are in price group C.

National state scholarship

DfE was also considering a national state scholarship to support widening access to and participation in higher education. Though the potential benefits of this scheme were recognised, it will not be taken forward at this point. The government will “give further consideration to whether a scholarship scheme or other form of support will add significant value.”

Franchising in higher education

There has been increasing concern about the way franchising and other forms of subcontracting provision work in higher education. The current position is that the lead provider in franchising relationships is responsible for the quality and standards of provision.

The department has noted that this model of provision is growing rapidly (currently involving 126 lead partners and 389 delivery partners teaching around 95,000 students) and is aware that there is limited public data available on these relationships, alongside growing concerns about the quality of some franchised provision.

While noting that some franchised provision does a useful job in widening participation, especially in “cold spots”, DfE has committed to work with OfS to clarify expectations and – if needed – impose additional controls.

What will happen next?

The secondary legislation required to change foundation year fee limits will be laid before parliament ahead of the imposition of the new cap in 2025-26. After receiving the statutory guidance from DfE, OfS will most likely consult on the implementation of changes to B3 conditions – and I would imagine that this would happen alongside the planned consultation on outcomes measure for short course provision.

OfS has been able to impose recruitment caps since inception, and it may choose to do so following the publication of the outcomes of the first phase of B3 investigations, which DfE expects could happen as soon as this month (though more likely in the autumn).

One response to “What’s in the HE reform consultation response?

  1. The DFE impact analysis uses OFS dashboard data for 2021-2 degree outcomes to calculate that 106 providers have missed at least one of the 3 thresholds (75% continuation, 80% completion and/or 60% graduate job or PG progression). DfE calculate that there are 106,000 students in this trawl which is 8% of the total full time first degree cohort (presumably including international students) but, at provider typology level, 90% of those numbers in Large Level 4/5 providers (26,600 out of 30,000).

    By the time it takes for OfS officials to complete a consultation on the next set of statutory guidance, work through the numbers, do some visits and exchange letters with accountable officers, there may not be many formal public notices issued but this latest programme will prompt preemptive institution level decisions, including transfer of validation, reshaping of courses and straight closure. Seems likely this will make HE sector even more stratified between different classes of institution but hopefully there’ll be countervailing trends.

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