I’ve honestly lost count of the number of times the government has announced a crackdown on “low quality courses” in recent years.
Back in May 2022 the “boots on the ground” investigations were supposed to be the way in which OfS made sense of pockets of poor performance. Before then we had the various iterations of fines “up to £500,000” for recalcitrant providers.
And we’ve seen more than a few permutations of indicators to help us spot these pockets of poor performance – the current one being the “B3” data on continuation, completion, and progression to a graduate job or similarly “good” outcome.
All that’s been briefed so far in this latest round is that the OfS will have powers to control recruitment in providers (and areas within providers) where there are concerns on any of these three axes. I’d assume this would be “following an investigation” as I am pretty sure the OfS doesn’t really want to go back to court.
And OfS already has the power to do this – via a specific condition of registration. Indeed, it is currently happening in at least one case that we know about.
Letter of the law
Paragraph 175 (b) of the regulatory framework lays out precisely what is on the table as an example of what OfS has the power to do.
“here there have been poor employability rates of students at a provider, a specific ongoing condition could require the provider to improve its employment outcomes before it can increase the number of students it recruits.
The regulator could also already achieve this via partial, targeted, suspension of registration – as per paragraph 183.
An example of where suspension might be appropriate is where a particular course has very weak continuation rates or with few students progressing to managerial or professional employment, or further study. Following investigation, it is apparent that changes need to be made to the course design. The provider has breached one of its ongoing conditions, but will be able to remedy the breach. To prevent more students from being affected, and to ensure that the provider takes action to remedy the breach, the OfS may decide to suspend the provider’s recruitment of new students to the relevant course until remedial action is taken.
These are measures that OfS could have used, should it have been minded to, at any point since it was established. These are actions that would have a significant impact on the viability of the providers involved, and OfS would need to be sure that the student interest was protected in the event that this restriction led to a provider being unable to operate. And these are actions that, it has been made abundantly clear, can be applied to areas of provision as well as whole providers.
Previously on B3
Here’s all the times OfS has got stuck in with B3-related specific conditions, based on what is on the current register:
- London Metropolitan University – “at risk” of breaching B3 over outcomes when registered, improvement plan required.
- University of Bolton – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on outcomes, improvement plan required.
- United Colleges Group – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation and completion, improvement plan required.
- Blackburn College – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on all three measures, improvement plan required.
- Grimsby Institute – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation and outcomes, improvement plan required.
- Bradford College – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation and outcomes, improvement plan required.
- LTE Group – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation and outcomes, improvement plan required.
- Halesowen College – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation, improvement plan required.
- Hopwood Hall College – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation, improvement plan required.
- Aylesbury College – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on all three indicators, improvement plan required.
- City of Sunderland College – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation and completion, improvement plan required.
- Bishop Auckland College – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation, improvement plan required.
- South and City College Birmingham – “increased risk” of breaching B3 on continuation, improvement plan required.
- Burton and South Derbyshire College – restriction on number of students, prohibition of new and replacement higher education courses.
- Burton and South Derbyshire College (again) – Improvement plan required, continuation rates.
- Bloomsbury Institute – “significantly increased” risk for condition B3 on continuation, targets and relating to continuation required.
- Bloomsbury Institute (again) – “significantly increased risk” for B3 outcomes – commitments around publications relating to continuation.
- *North Hertfordshire College – required to submit an action plan, for continuation (B3)
- *Croydon College – required to submit an improvement plan, for continuation and progression (B3)
- *Ealing, Hammersmith, and West London College – required to submit an action plan, for continuation (B3)
As you can see, Burton and South Derbyshire College already enjoys a restriction on student recruitment and a parallel prohibition on offering new courses (including courses offered in partnership with another provider. What’s notable is that this was applied at the point of registration, and that it still applies now. I’d love to read a regulatory report on this one.
What we learn more generally is that OfS has historically favoured an “improvement plan” – offering a chance for providers to work with OfS to improve the quality of their offer. This is the way a mature regulator works to drive up quality and standards. An improvement plan also offers a chance for the provider to negotiate with OfS (“do you really want us to stop recruiting disadvantaged students?”) and for the provider to have a hand in its own destiny.
The three providers with asterisks have previously been subject to specific B3 conditions – and faced restrictions similar to those at Burton and South Derbyshire College. Thanks to the ever-vigilant Mike Ratcliffe we know that these have now been removed, but there has been no official announcement from OfS – the conditions just disappear from the register.
If a provider has a course (subject area, of course – but this could equally apply to any other group of students) that has a lower than expected proportion (of the approximately 60 per cent of graduates that complete the Graduate Outcomes survey) coded using a very broad brush into the top three SOC codes (or similarly arbitrary “positive destinations”) then this alone is not enough to let OfS limit recruitment with confidence or without challenge.