A parliamentary inquiry into the Office for Students is under way, though it’s not going to be the Education Committee leading it, despite mission groups in January calling for just this.
Rather, it’s the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee, chaired by Labour’s Lord Hollick, whose remit is “to consider matters relating to industry, including the policies of His Majesty’s Government to promote industrial growth, skills and competitiveness, and to scrutinise the work of UK regulators.”
The committee is tasked with assessing the work of regulators – one of its recent inquiries has dragged Ofwat over the coals for sewage discharges.
In the OfS inquiry, the committee will:
scrutinise whether the statutory duties of the OfS are clear and examine its performance against those duties since its establishment. The inquiry will look at how the OfS’ regulatory framework has developed since its inception, its independence from and relationship with the Government, and whether it has the necessary expertise and resources to carry out its functions.
This is much of what sector groups have been calling for, and reflects concerns raised in OfS’ recently published review of its engagement with universities. Lord Hollick notes that “the Office for Students is a relatively new regulator, having only become fully operational in 2019. However, since then, the way in which it oversees higher education providers has changed.”
The inquiry also looks set to follow up on how well OfS is managing financial risk in the sector, picking up on concerns raised last year by the Public Accounts Committee:
The inquiry will also examine the OfS’ work in relation to the financial sustainability of the higher education sector. This will include consideration of the extent of systemic financial risks in the sector, such as the reliance of some universities on overseas students, how the OfS considers and manages these risks, and the potential consequences of and processes for the failure of providers.
A call for evidence has been opened, with a deadline of Friday 7 April.
Of the 12 questions which respondents are invited to address, we have notable ones on OfS expertise (especially in light of QAA’s demission as Designated Quality Body), its relationship with universities and engagement with students, its tolerance for and processes regarding institutional failure, and its relationship with the government:
Does this strike the right balance between providing guidance and maintaining regulatory independence?
We welcome the opportunity to discuss with the Committee the OfS’s work to protect the interests of students. The OfS will work constructively with the Committee through the course of its inquiry and do all we can to assist its work.