Such has been the power of the narrative arc we’ve followed throughout the Industry and Regulators Committee inquiry into the work of the Office for Students that we had great expectations for the appearance of the current chief executive and chair.
It’s not in the nature of committee work for this to be the moment where the organisation responded to the increasing list of charges made to it – this will happen when OfS responds to the committee report. Neither is this our season finale – Robert Halfon gives evidence next week, and we’ve yet to see any of the written evidence.
The committee is still in fact finding mode – though where and how far they pushed Susan Lapworth and James Wharton on each point of interest may offer some indication as to how the report will go. Conversely the way OfS attempted or did not attempt to put the record straight on various key issues is also highly instructive.
On the workings of the OfS Student Panel, we learned that new student representative board member Caleb Stevens – fresh from his interview with Robert Halfon – is spearheading a “reform” of the student panel with the personal support of James Wharton. This could be very positive news – Lapworth was clear that the current panel has served OfS “reasonably” well in the regulatory start-up phases, but concurred with many observers that the panel needs to have “tentacles that can reach into the sector” in order to complement planned additional work on student insight.
But it is difficult for us to see this “reform” announced without mind paid to the comments about a “review” threatened by a senior OfS member. Wharton’s earlier listing of student engagement activity (“polling, the national student survey, notifications” ) notably did not mention the panel, and there was a fascinating recounting of the need to balance long term and short term student interests. The regulator is set to beef up work on competition and consumer law, and there is more coming on applicant information, and students rights.
Susan Lapworth was happy to list areas where the student panel had made a difference – on the blended learning review, on the inclusion of a mental wellbeing question in the national student survey and on TEF. Peers asked why this information was not included in the annual report – pressures of space it seems.
Independent love song
There’s been concerns throughout these hearings about the independence of the Office for Students from the government – the perception of extreme conviviality is not helped by the chair taking the government whip. James Wharton was keen to assure us he acts “as an independent chair”, and stated:
I have never allowed the fact that I sit as a Conservative Peer to sway my actions in this role
Other chairs, apparently, resign political affiliations during their period of office. “Some do,” he sniffed. “I chose not to. It’s not a requirement”.
Wharton was happy to summarise current government higher education policy. The government he is a member of is very interested in OfS’ ongoing work on quality (this will “shift up several gears”), the lifelong loan entitlement, and freedom of speech. It is less interested than predecessors in bringing new providers into the sector, and the ministerial merry-go-round of recent years has not dulled these priorities.
And both witnesses claimed that the perception that OfS jumped at ministerial commands was “over-egged” – the government does have certain levers it can pull but not always to certain effect. Lapworth noted the story already rehearsed by Nicola Dandridge regarding pushback on National Student Survey changes, and added that the government “may not have been entirely pleased with” Susan Orr’s review of blended learning. She reminded us that although ministers may have written ten guidance letters in a year, seven of these concerned new funding allocations – and she noted the government had been forced to use a formal power to compel the OfS to cut London weighting and arts funding.
One of the many pressures that the Office for Students feels is not to be too “HEFCE-like” – a distinction drawn with the assumption that whereas HEFCE supported provider interests, OfS supported student interests. As peers pointed out, these two drives were often in concord, though Lapworth cited counter examples such as on consumer rights and (somewhat mystifyingly) harassment.
Lapworth did concede that there had been something of a regulatory journey – OfS found during the pandemic that they were unable to deal with what were described as “worrying issues” raised directly by students and realised that the initial, “woolly” framework could not be used “in anger” to regulate. In terms of lessons learned, Wharton was keen to impress that the regulator needed to move more rapidly regarding financial distress, and get better at understanding what students are saying (a problem that will become critical when OfS begins to regulate students’ unions).
Wharton believed that, contrary to what the committee had heard, OfS had a good relationship with most of the sector, most of the time. We learned his email address goes straight to his phone – he urged the sector to get in touch with him directly on issues of burden. Though letters from OfS do give a named contact, Lapworth cautioned that OfS did not have the resources to return to the old regional coordinator model – she hoped a new quarterly online meeting for VCs would help to address concerns instead.
Quality and value
Issues having an impact on provider finance right now – the declining unit of resource, higher costs, higher interest rates, difficulties faced in borrowing, competitive pressures between providers, and an over-reliance on single sources of international income – could all fairly be laid at the door of the government’s choices. But here OfS was clear that they didn’t not have an influence – focusing instead on mitigating risks to students at individual providers. This work – to use the distinction of the day – is more “HEFCE-like” in that it happens unseen behind closed doors for what were agreed were “obvious reasons”, and generally do not rely on formal powers (for instance OfS has been getting involved in conversations with lenders). James Wharton did not agree that vice chancellors were “reluctant” to tell OfS about issues, and hoped that they would as it was not the regulators role to tell them how to run their businesses. Anyway, as we will see in coming days, OfS feels that overall the sector is in a financial healthy (if declining) state, though there are always individual providers of concern (30 saw discussions last year, 20 are experiencing some form of enhanced monitoring).
The committee probably spent most time on the relationship between the OfS and the former designated quality body – characterised as fraught in previous communications between OfS and QAA. We got some numbers on the alleged poor quality reports – for each year of the DQB, OfS claimed not to be able to use the first submission of two-thirds of DQB reports for regulation (58 of 88 reports overall).
Though the DQB role 2017 Higher Education and Research Act was, according to Lapworth, designed with the QAA in mind, she was clear that the QAA could not do the job and was very unlikely to be able to do the job in future (I note in passing that OfS recommended the QAA for the job in 2018). HERA is clear that there does not have to be an independent DQB – Lapworth noted that this was common in other sectors – and the absence of a DQB (with the absence of any existing body that could be designated) makes it easier for OfS to regulate.
Warton noted it was “just not right” to say that there were not issues with the QAA, and it is “not credible” to say that OfS invented or exaggerated these issues.
Minister Robert Halfon is expected to take the stand on 16 May, after which the Industry and Regulators Committee will consider both written (still to be published) and oral evidence in writing a final report to be laid before parliament.
Committee reports in the Lords often spark a debate on the floor of the house – plus we could reasonably expect a formal response to the report from OfS (who may then choose to refute parts of the evidence collected, and respond to recommendations) and, most importantly, from DfE (who may well respond to evidence by making changes to the way regulation works in England’s higher education sector).