Fees for OfS inspections

Boots on the ground and guess who's paying for them?

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

One of the more risible facets of the deeply risible Office for Students “boots on the ground messaging” is that the at least eight investigations into what may or may not be evidence of poor quality in a number of unknown English higher education providers is that the whole thing is funded by DfE to the tune of more than £10m.

Now a new set of regulations laid before parliament under the auspices of section 71 (1) and (2) of HERA allows providers themselves to take on this noble burden.

It was always a bit of a stretch for DfE to be funding these investigations – OfS as a regulator is supposed to be sustained entirely by subscriptions from registered providers – and section 74 of HERA does suggest that, although the department can make grants to OfS, the “boots on the ground” stuff (focused as it is on the content of courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised, or assessed) is possibly not in scope.

Though it may be fairly suggested that it is fair to expect a regulator to, er, regulate as a part of its core activity, we need to balance this against the cost incurred by OfS in visiting a campus and talking to people may be significant. Someone, clearly, needs to foot the bill for those squad cars, highly trained teams of academic specialists, and those personalised flak jackets for senior OfS staff.

No win, no fee

Of course, the fact that fees are only payable where the investigation has found evidence of a problem where the OfS needs to act (s2 (6)). Nobly, and it a way that does not in any sense prejudice the outcome of an investigation, the OfS will itself cover the costs of investigations where no evidence of a problem is found.

The level of fees charged is to be determined by the OfS based on what costs it reckons it reasonably incurred in conducting the investigation, including the valuable service provided in writing the press releases that show how hard it is cracking down on whatever it is meant to be cracking down on. In a touching display of largesse, OfS may chose to waive or refund these fees – perhaps rewarding prompt payment with a lower total amount.

Providers may choose to make representations about any fee that is levied (remember this is both on top of and separate to the famous “up to £500,000” fine which has it’s own representations system), with OfS due to set the parameters in which  this could happen.

Section 3 of the regulations requires the OfS to publish a statement about the way in which it determines these “reasonable costs”, and I feel confident the sector will get a chance to feed in as a part of a consultation in due course.

So to conclude, this is all perfectly normal stuff that a perfectly normal regulator needs to do. The sterling work of the OfS – which has effectively driven the sector from a position in 2017 where most providers were registered to a position in 2022 where many providers are in danger of not meeting regulatory requirements – continues.

7 responses to “Fees for OfS inspections

  1. So, the OfS will set the regulations, monitor whether we meet the regulations, decide is an investigation is warranted, determine the outcome of that investigation, and then decide whether to charge us for the privilege of being investigated?

    And they are chaired by the member of the government who has form for praising dictators who close universities which do not share their politics, and a CEO who likes to retweet Spiked articles alongside vague threats? Well, this all seems wonderfully above board and reassuring.

    It’s weird how after 5 years of a changed regulatory regime – and oh so many thousands of pages if new regulatory documents – the sector seems to be in much worse shape than it was previously, with a weakened international reputation. Still, I’m sure that doing the same but harder is the answer.

  2. Possible conflict of interest here to find something wrong to justify the fees is just staggering. Whilst I assume the rebuttal will be about having sufficient controls in place, in terms of public interest any perceived conflict should be avoided. I can imagine this being open to challenge via the courts if does happen and the outcomes of an investigation are ambiguous.

    This also reflects on the wider discussions of the OfS as a truly independent regulator and the ending of QAA being the Designated Quality Body, which as a trusted sector body could be seen to be more impartial in these types of matter. As DQB they were able to charge fees in relation to assessments of whether ongoing conidiations were satisfied.

    Talking about DQB fees, what happens if the QAA isn’t replaced and OfS take on the function. Only the DQB can charge the fees (HERA 28) and OfS can’t be the DQB only take on the activity. Will this mean a saving for HEIs or will the OfS just increase the registration fee.

  3. How is this an impartial body investigating? If no charge if no problems found, will try to find problems…also, surely a HE provider could offer to pay the fees upfront to “pay” for a ‘good’ investigation result. How would any student, parent or careers advisor know how a providers ‘good’ result had been obtained?

  4. Perhaps the OfS should consider raising additional funds by opening up a merchandise shop. I would certainly buy an OfS-branded flak jacket that I could use to frighten my colleagues around Halloween. And a t-shirt with the entire regulatory code printed in tiny font would make an excellent present for my mother in law.

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