Whose registrations has the Office for Students refused?

Avid readers will recall our exciting canter around the Office for Students (OfS) provider registration process – and the ominous silence surrounding those providers that have been sent “minded to refuse” registration letters (some 22 providers as at the May 2019 Officer for Students Board).

As the “level playing field” opens its gates for play, it’s important to know the basis on which providers are being refused – partly so that we can see where the “level” is being set. We’re interested in this select ‘minded to refuse’ bunch both because Department for Education was often providing access to the loan book for this group, and because a refusal might trigger provider collapse. Is the GSM London closure the tip of a miserable iceberg? And why is it starting to look like the DfE process was notably less robust than the OfS process – it’s not like David Willetts or Jo Johnson were saying “yeah we’ll give anyone access to the loan book until we have a regulator up and running” earlier in the decade.

Given that the Office for Students won’t tell us who the 22 are, we thought we’d have a go at reverse engineering the data that’s out there to work out who’s got one of those letters. This isn’t just out of morbid curiosity – it also allows us to look at decision consistency, the use of public funds and the plight of any students that are enrolled in a precarious provider. It helps us assess whether the private provider revolution heralded in HERA is happening. And it also helps us work out if OfS’ forecasts on provider registration were right – and if short, whether there could be implications for everyone else in terms of registration fees.

The story so far

As a reminder, at the time of writing we know officially about four “minded to refuse” (MtR) letters (and remember, for all we know that 22 MtR letters reported in May may have grown). In July the old London School of Business and Management (renamed as Bloomsbury Institute) became the first to be refused on the basis of quality (continuation rates from first to second year, and the rate of progression to graduate employment) and management and governance (“a lack of credibility in its student and financial forecasts” which could arguably be said about half of the sector) – and the Telegraph reported that “Northampton University declined to comment on whether it would continue to accredit degrees from the Bloomsbury Institute”.

Its website makes clear that “If you’re thinking of applying to one of our courses starting October 2019, you will not be able to access funding from the Student Loans Company”, suggesting UoN validation and a fresh go at application next year – but elsewhere it says “UoN award all our degree qualifications and you’ll be enrolled as a UoN student”, which might suggest a franchising future. It’s not hugely clear to students in any event.

ABI College Limited and Waltham Forest College were then announced as being refused registration, the former with an eye-watering host of refusal reasons. The Office for Students said neither had continuing students, suggesting neither were needing that “limited designation” status.

Spurgeon’s College announced itself that it had been refused on 19 August on the basis of financial assessment, prompting OfS to issue a statement that as far as it was concerned, the process was ongoing. “We always seek the views of the university or college concerned before reaching a decision about publication… that consultation process has not concluded and we have yet to reach a decision on whether or not to publish further information about our registration decision”.

And of course there’s nothing on there about GSM London, although the THE has reported that OfS wrote to GSM on in July to say that it had sent a MtR letter, which may well have been the financial straw that broke that camel’s back.

That left a minimum of 17 providers with MtR letters to hunt down.

Runaround Sue

First we should probably give a little sense of process. Over on the OfS page that hosts its sophisticated excel sheet of providers on the register, there’s a note that has appeared since we last blogged on this that says:

Where we are still assessing applications, or finalising our decisions, we have written to some providers to explain that they may be eligible for ‘limited designation’. This means that continuing students at these providers may be able to access funding from the Student Loans Company to continue with their studies. If you are a student at a provider which is not on the OfS Register, you should contact your provider directly for further information”

…by which we take to mean that new students will not be able to access funding (yet), but that continuing students will be able to. We obviously asked OfS who it was that was in this category of providers getting public subsidies that weren’t on the register, but got the standard response:

As you know we don’t publish the names of those with limited designation as they are in the middle of a regulatory process.”

Next we thought we’d check with Student Finance England. After all, a student making an application for funding would expect their list to be up to date on which providers and courses would be eligible. Surely they could tell us who was getting funding?

No such luck – all we got from them was:

Public information on HEP providers falls under the role of the Office for Students (OfS) and is readily available from their Register of Providers.”

…and no answer on “limited designation” or the process/accuracy of eligibility data on the SFE site.

We thought the Unistats data might be useful – but it’s only of course historical. We thought HESA might help – but its “Provider mergers and changes” page only details stuff that happened up to and including the 2017/18 year. The old HEFCE lists were just too long. And UCAS famously refuses to supply any comprehensive data on courses it lists.

So at that stage we were pretty stumped. Short of spending months trying to manually reconcile the above datasets, how would we work out what was going on?

Aha!

Then we remembered that at some stage last year, the SLC released provider level data on which institutions got access to the loan book. Admittedly, this was only from 2017/18, but at least if we compared that list to the current OfS register we’d have a good shot at working out who used to get funding but may not in the future. Sadly the SLC won’t say who the provider is if it had less than 50 students, but the list’s a start.

Comparing the 2017/18 SLC list with the register on August 22 2019, we ended up with 40 “missing providers”. One (the ChickenShed theatre company) appeared on the register the following day. Twelve of them (eleven of them Further Education Corporations) have merged with others since (which does mean that some of the vaunted TEF claims we’ve seen are at best faulty). One was an unmarked “school-centred initial teacher training” provider (not handled by OfS). Three of the ones we know about (GSM, ABI and Bloomsbury) were in the SLC list, suggesting that if Waltham and Spurgeon’s were drawing down loans in 2017/18 they were under the 50 limit. One had a funny “UK Provider Reference Number” and was, in fact, on the register. 18 down, 22 to go!

One of them (Grafton College) had its designation removed by DfE after that infamous Panorama documentary. Who knows what happened to the students that were enrolled there, although this FOI thread is worth a look. The Tottenham Hotspur Foundation can now be found on UCAS as a franchise partner of Hertford Regional College. Minutes from June 2018 on the Runshaw College site were pleased to note that switching to franchising via UCLAN would mean “there would … be no requirement to register with the Office for Students as the provision would not be directly funded … UCLAN had also agreed to maintain the course validation fee at £1,200 “.

Curiouser and curiouser

That left us with four Further Education Corporations, and fifteen Alternative Providers (APs). Some of them might never have applied to OfS and that 22 MtR letters might include some not left on our list, but you get the gist.

The nineteen that are left paint a picture of considerable confusion and misery. Google search results for Stratford College London say “this site may be hacked” – it’s still advertising various validated Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates and does say that “students who are studying with us may be eligible for financial assistance through the Student Finance organisation”, though we couldn’t find their courses on the SFE site – probably because it lost its designation in 17/18. What we could find was the London School of Executive Education at the same address, although this only seems to offer Language Courses and an MBA “with” the University of Chichester – bizarre given that Chichester says “we are not affiliated with LSEE in any way, and we do not have (nor have ever had) a partnership with them”.

One AP lost its designation in 17/18 and isn’t offering anything notable, although there are traces of an OfS application. Another proudly reassures students by sporting an NUS logo withdrawn a decade ago, but doesn’t appear to be offering any courses – there’s traces of an OfS application, but nothing posted since February. We’re assuming they’ve thrown in the towel. Who know what happened to their students or if students enrolled in the last year or so are OK.

Of the four FECs left, there seem to be some listed courses on the SFE site that don’t appear on their own sites or on the UCAS site. There are traces of validation agreements that don’t seem to be explicitly referenced in those universities’ Student Protection Plans. One fairly large FEC has minutes showing an application “pending”. Another seems to have rapidly exited the market – again who knows if the over 400 students that were there in 17/18 are OK now.

There’s a couple of tiny performing arts institutions, both of which have statements saying they’ve applied for OfS registration – but presumably are stuck in limbo, which could mean continuation of those institutions (and any continuing students) is under threat. Similarly, there’s a couple of small religious providers that seem to be in the same boat. We can also think of at least a couple of APs not on that SLC list that we know have switched to franchising, or have tried to register with OfS but will still operate (without access to the loan book) from elsewhere in Europe.

Is there an alternative?

That leaves us with nine APs, with some 7,000 students between them back in 17/18 according to the SLC. All are based in London. Most have traces of OfS registration (draft Student Protection Plans, Access and Participation statements, that kind of thing). One has a message saying “we await the registration decision from OfS”. Another has the student funding page newly marked as “Private Funding” despite other references on the site to SFE. Some are on UCAS and not on SFE. Some are on SFE but not on UCAS. Some seem to have switched to franchising, transferring the risk to the host provider (that’s usually still sporting its TEF rating). None of them even mention the phrase “limited designation”.

The upshot is pretty terrifying. Any applicant would be confused as to which provider they might be applying to, what information is reliable, and where they’re supposed to look on Unistats. In some cases students might be about to shell out their own money (or a privately funded loan) to a provider that was given a “minded to refuse” letter as far back as March – and might now be in serious trouble. In other cases courses are still being advertised as eligible for new SFE funding (and in some cases still appear on the SFE website), despite those providers not being on the register – not our understanding of how “limited designation” works. Presumably they’re hoping to string applicants along with fingers crossed for their registration appeal. Charming.

Because they’re all not on the register yet, the student protection regime doesn’t apply. And even where a validating partner is mentioned, often the university SPP has mysteriously gone missing, or only applies to franchising, or is so vague as to be even more meaningless than the average SPP.

Maybe they’ll all be OK – perhaps their financial backers can weather a quiet year, get OfS registration sorted and reapply next year. Maybe they’ll collapse, and all the affected students will be able to transfer onto courses at other providers. Maybe all of the 7,000 students were on courses that have now ended, and there’s no continuing students to worry about.

But maybe – just maybe – we shouldn’t be so optimistic. These are the sorts of providers where the press won’t care and where the affected students won’t have the cultural or social capital to cause a big fuss. The potential scale of human tragedy is huge, and unforgivable. And even in this exercise we’ll have missed course and provider closure since the early part of the decade. How many students have student loan debt from courses they’ve not been able to complete? And as we’ve asked before, can we think of any reason why DfE shouldn’t just wipe the student debt now hanging around the necks of those affected by its big experiment?

One response to “Whose registrations has the Office for Students refused?

  1. Jim: Try comparing the OfS decision making process with the Regulators Code with which OfS must comply. If OfS fails to comply it will face the possibility of successful judicial review at the instigation of an applicant. Most likely it would then be required to restart the entire process. The key issue is whether OfS is providing a compliant appeal process, in which no person involved in the initial decision takes part.

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