OfS has already used powers to cap recruitment

So, here we are again...

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

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:

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.

3 responses to “OfS has already used powers to cap recruitment

  1. There was a short period in 2019 where new providers got a 3A and 3B specific condition pairing. There were four colleges who got a student number cap one – Burton and South Derbyshire College appear to be the only one whose relevant student number cap is still in place. Presumably, therefore, the college is still restricted to the size of entry it had in 2018/19 plus a percentage agreed by OfS. (Schedule below).

    Although OfS often recorded the removal of conditions in the monthly bulletin, I missed the removal of the B3A conditions imposed on the other three colleges. There’s no mention of how the OfS will review the B3 number cap condition, but presumably the three colleges met some requirement. It’s curious that the B3 specific ongoing conditions imposed on places like London Met remain in place – focused on actions around plan they submitted in January 2019.

    Schedule 1 to Specific Ongoing Condition B3A (Burton and South Derbyshire College) – determination of Relevant Student Number Cap
    S.1. Subject to paragraph S.2, the number of students commencing an Existing Higher Education Course for the Academic Year 2019/20 and each subsequent Academic Year will be determined on the following basis:
    (a) First, by calculating the total number of students who, in the opinion of the Office for Students, commenced their first Academic Year in respect of an Existing Higher
    Education Course during the Academic Year 2018/19;
    (b) Second, by multiplying the total number calculated in accordance with paragraph S.1(a) by a percentage (of no more than 10 and which may be different for different Academic Years) determined by the Office for Students.
    S.2. The total number of students for the purposes of paragraph S.1 may also be increased by an amount determined by the Office for Students in circumstances where one or more Replacement Course and/or Additional Higher Education Course is not prohibited by virtue of this condition

  2. OfS reported in its autumn 2019 that it had issued condition letters relating to “B3. Quality (Student outcomes) to 19 providers at the initial registration stage and I think the list above may be in this group.

    OfS’s approach at initial registration involved challenges to provider applicants whose data over the previous few years (back to the mid-2010s) so it’s possible that some of these letters relate to higher education that started about 10 years (ie started in 2013, completed in 2016, reviewed in the data in 2019).

    One feature of quality improvement notices is that it can be quite hard to get rid of them once they’ve been issued.

  3. At Burton and South Derbyshire College (BSDC), we pride ourselves in providing high-quality technical and vocational education which effectively serves our local communities helping meet the skills needs of our regional economy.

    We share the frustrations echoed in this editorial (and in related comments) of using very historical performance data when we entered the register back in 2019, which for us, included a small but statistically relevant proportion of poorly performing employer responsive provision. Also, at the time of registration, our current and high performing franchised provision with our longstanding university partner was not taken into consideration.

    BSDC has and continues to comply with all regulatory requirements since entering the register, including meeting all aspects of its specific ongoing conditions. Based on the latest OfS published student outcomes data, we can demonstrate that 100% of our provision is above all regulatory numerical thresholds and significantly above the sector averages for both continuation and completion of taught and registered students.

    BSDC has been actively seeking the removal of its specific ongoing conditions since 2021, but at the time, the OfS responded stating that they were not able to lift any specific ongoing conditions of registration in relation to condition B3 while the quality and standards consultation was ongoing. Now this has been concluded, we are currently working with the regulator and awaiting the imminent confirmation of removal of these elapsed conditions from our registration.

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