Why all the silence on higher education provider information?

Mike Ratcliffe is keen to see more information on the Office for Students' approach to the information it provides about the universities and colleges it regulates

Mike Ratcliffe is a higher education historian and career academic administrator

It’s now over a year since the OfS consultation on publishing information on providers closed.

One of the core functions of OfS as regulator is to provide information on the providers that it regulates. Publishing the Register is a statutory function of OfS, but they have also picked up a century old function of publishing official information about higher education providers who are in receipt of public funding.

This information matters – for individuals it remains the case that education is one of those services that can be offered in the wider marketplace on the basis of caveat emptor – it’s the official information that confirms that a course has official standing.

For society, as recipients of public funding providers have information published about them and they are required to publish information themselves. Potential students might be expected to make more direct use of information on accreditations or assessment methods more than solvency data, but this information should be there.

OfS knows a lot about the providers it regulates. There’s a suite of information requirements that it uses to drive its regulatory activity – financial forecasts, student data, reportable events etc. The consultation was about both which parts of the information that OfS has gathered it should publish and which parts of its own information on providers it should publish. Effective regulation requires both candour and confidentiality – the consultation was about whether the lines should be recalibrated.

We’ve not seen a response to the consultation. We know that the OfS Board had a presentation on the issue in September, but that took the form of a closed part of the meeting and was marked “legal”. What we have seen is two outputs, presumably shaped by the response.

The “digital” register

For fans of the OfS register, it has been a mystery why its public version remained as a downloadable spreadsheet for so very long. OfS launched a web version in January in “beta” and are happy to take comments on it. There are some key strengths for anyone who is actually intending to use the Register as intended, say to check whether a provider was registered. It’s much easier to search on a provider’s trading name – although that adds a certain clunkiness to the entries. The first six entries which appear are:

  • AA
  • AA School of Architecture
  • ACM
  • ACM Guildford Ltd
  • AECC
  • AECC University College

As with any list of providers, there’s the issue of the “the”. Scrolling through you’ll find Cambridge University, The University of Cambridge and The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge but not University of Cambridge. See DK for more on this problem.

You’ll find “Abundant Life” on this list and “Barn Cinema” too. These are two of the 13 trading names of Dartington Hall Trust – although it appears only two (Shumacher College and Dartington Arts School) actually offer higher education programmes.

The web version makes it easier to see the regulatory information. The condition set for Churchill College is easy to see on its entry. What needs to be resolved is how OfS mark changes to regulatory information. The spreadsheet version is chronological and you can compare versions – say to spot that conditions are no longer listed.

The scope of the OfS “Monthly Bulletin of Regulatory Activity” has fluctuated, as has whether it appears monthly. People in the sector can sign up for OfS’ helpful emails, but without that prompt you won’t know if something has changed. One complaint though – why call this web version the “Digital version” – as if the spreadsheet were analog?

No defamation

The other piece of activity is the inclusion in the Post-16 Education and Skills Bill of a clause relating to OfS publishing judgments. You could speculate that this is the enabler necessary for what OfS wants to do on publishing more information on its judgments.

We’ve seen in the registration process some issues about the publication of the OfS decision, Spurgeon’s College put out a press release protesting about a refusal before OfS published anything, it worked out in the end and the College is on the Register. It was clear that the reason GSM went into administration was that a refusal was pending, but the decision was published 11 months after.

We’ve seen the cases that have gone to the high court – but in one case a refusal to register no longer appears on the OfS website.

As DK noted, the new clause will make clear that publishing information does not breach the obligation of confidence owed by OfS, even regarding whether to conduct an investigation. There’s then statutory protection for OfS against defamation claims.

The new clause will be considered in the House of Lords, potentially it might help discussion there if OfS could publish the response to the consultation about information, particularly if that includes the legal advice that must have underpinned the drafting.

Where next?

We seem to be making a habit of partially implementing parts of proposals contained in consultations before receiving the final response. We’ve not waited as long as we did after Augar, but neither have we had an interim response.

There’s encouraging signs – unlike earlier initial conditions of approval, the new condition placed on Churchill comes with an explanation. One concern about OfS’ approach to regulation, flagged in the NAO report, is that providers don’t always understand the requirements. At least with explanations of regulatory decisions it will be clearer – which, if nothing else, is useful if it encourages heads of providers to take the right action.

Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres

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