Little changes to regulation could have a big impact

The Office for Students (OfS) has sent a letter to providers with more details of a “phased resumption” of its regulatory requirements, and describes some short-term changes it is making in relation to the collection of financial data.

There’s various bits to note here. First, OfS will embed the model of engagement that it has operated during the pandemic to help providers navigate regulatory requirements on an ongoing basis. No surprises here – this was the signal in the last big press release OfS issued prior to the lockdown in March which heralded a change in tone. We’ll also get revised guidance on principles-based regulation, and a new approach to monitoring and intervention, reportable events, and notifications.

In the autumn OfS will relaunch its suspended consultation on monetary penalties, and confirm plans for the resumption of other ongoing consultations – including things like the suspended consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct.

The big news on quality concerns “poor-quality provision”, and we’re seeing clear evidence of OfS trying to thaw its relationship with ministers here. As we’ve been predicting for a while, OfS confirms that it will consult on changes to condition B3 (student outcomes) to “raise the bar” for all providers and address poor quality at subject level. That’s right – the B3 bear is coming for your subject performance. If you’re not sure what that means, try this, this or this.

In the letter Director of Competition and Registration Susan Lapworth notes that to date, OfS has refused registration to eleven providers because the outcomes for their students were unacceptably weak. But maybe that number is now ten – yesterday the Court of Appeal appeared to decide in favour of the Bloomsbury Institute, which initially lost a case on the application of B3 baselines earlier this year. That all means that OfS’ decision of 23 May 2019 to refuse Bloomsbury’s application for registration will therefore be quashed – the Court will give reasons for that decision in a judgment in August when we’ll see whether this will need to cause a rethink on B3 more generally.

An OfS spokesperson said “We are disappointed that the Court of Appeal has ruled in favour of Bloomsbury Institute Ltd. We will consider the judgement carefully before assessing our next steps and making any further comment.”

In other “quality” news, OfS will consult on introducing a regulatory tool to tackle unexplained grade inflation (via adoption of the new sector-recognised standards adopted by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment) and will even issue regulatory guidance on the public interest governance principles relating to academic freedom and free speech, “because these principles underpin high-quality higher education” – and, you know, also because the minister said jump.

Exciting news for the data community – there’s been a “further reduction of burden”, although this doesn’t seem to amount to much beyond a few deadlines moving back and OfS confirming that the estates management return and the non-academic staff return are requirements that have been permanently removed (even though most will still do the estates return voluntarily to make sure they show up in this). Maybe data types can fill us in on anything we’re missing in the comments below.

There’s a moderate flexing of its approach to monitoring provider finances which picks up that tricky issue of banking covenant breaches via a new reportable event. Providers get two extra months for the submission of the normal annual financial return. The timeframe for reports on short-term financial risk moves from three months to 12 months, and there’s a new interim data collection point in October 2020. It would be nice to get some public reporting from all this financial reporting into Nicholson House, but we’re not holding our breath.

Finally, there will be a shot/chaser approach on access and participation. Noting that the pandemic will have disrupted the delivery of 2019-20 plans, OfS will let both providers and students feed back on these impacts, and will then publish guidance on both how it will monitor activity during the pandemic, and proposals for changes to APPs as a result of it.

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