OfS has more to say to the Industry and Regulators Committee

There's more information on finance, student engagement, and the fascinating world of international quality assurance

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

You know it is – you press send on an email, then immediately start another one to include all the things you forgot to add.

The Office for Students certainly does – as it has added a giant postscript to the mammoth written evidence it previously submitted to the Industry and Regulators Committee.

A part of it fulfils Chief Executive Susan Lapworth’s promise to write to the committee about student engagement, but the opportunity has also been taken to add salient points on “financial sustainability and risk”, and on “European quality expectations”.  A brief introduction outlines how the regulator has been holding briefings for senior staff and notes that senior OfS staff will visit “around 20” providers before the end of the academic year.

Student engagement

OfS had the opportunity to set the record straight on a number issues around the student panel – they have not taken this opportunity. As a reminder, we have the allegations of threats to the continued work of the committee should it not toe a political line, and a wider claim around what we might call “silencing”, are still live within oral and written evidence seen by the committee. From the OfS we get nothing on these issues, but we do get a summary of recent work by the panel, detail on other student engagement (NSS, bespoke polling on value for money, notification), and the welcome news that OfS continued to meet with NUS even as the government refused to.

Financial sustainability and risk

The material in this will be familiar to Wonkhe readers from the recent annual report on fiscal sustainability and the case studies, but unfortunately room was not found from the valuable additional evidence published from TRAC data, or the additional burden caused by an 18 per cent hike in subscription fees. OfS also notes it has written to 23 providers around an overreliance on recruitment from China.

The Chinese recruitment issue has been raised at committee hearings, and OfS’ action on this risk to certain providers will be welcomed. But this section will do nothing to settle committee nerves about having parts of the national skills and research infrastructure at risk of insolvency from a badly designed market system.

European quality expectations

The committee has heard from several sources about the potential impact of the quality assurance regime in England not being compliant with international standards. OfS frames these as European standards – with the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) conducting a review of an agency against the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) to inform a European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) decision on recognition against the ESG. In reality ESG is seen as a global “gold standard” with most mature quality assurance schemes across the world complying with these rules.

There’s three bits of the ESG that has given England trouble post-2017 – the requirement that reviews are conducted on a cyclical basis, that review reports are published, and that students are involved in reviews. This section of the OfS evidence attempts to appeal primarily to the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) to justify deviation.

There is, of course, nothing in HERA to suggest OfS is forbidden to publish reports or use students in reviews. OfS has the powers in HERA (as amended) to publish notices, decisions, and reports – but even before this addition there was nothing stopping the regulator from either publishing the reports itself or asking the designated quality body (then QAA) to do so. The curious argument made by OfS – that just because it doesn’t have to publish every quality assurance report it should not commit to do so – is unconvincing.

It argues that students might not be suitable for traditional quality reviews, in effect, because they are unable to offer expert judgement (the example given is around academic standards). This is neatly undermined by OfS asserting that students do play a part in TEF marking and that this should be recognised as ESG compliance – quite how TEF addresses how internal quality assurance processes (ESG 2.1) is not clear. So students are able to make judgements above the minimum quality threshold but not at it?

And of course we have cyclical reviews – here OfS appeals again to TEF (which it claims is cyclical, which I suppose it is in that it runs whenever the TEF methodology isn’t hopelessly discredited – so not since 2019). Again TEF doesn’t look at internal processes so it doesn’t count towards ESG, although I’m sure OfS would be welcome to argue the toss about this with ENQA.

Sunlit uplands

There is an underpinning assertion that the ESG is restraining innovation by insisting on cyclical visits, review publication, methodological transparency, and student participation.

we think the European model needs modernising to accommodate more diversity in the way different national systems operate… the European approach does not properly accommodate risk-based regulation, which is an obligation placed on the OfS by the legislation

There are a number of European quality assurance agencies that use risk-based approaches (albeit with some lighter touch cyclical elements) – ESG is not the “one size fits all” operation that OfS is trying to paint it as. And ENQA is up for modernising ESG – it has been modified in the past and there is currently a project underway (the “quality assurance – fit for the future” or QA-FIT project) addressing just this. ENQA reviews the state of quality assurance practice via summaries of reviews of agencies – the latest iteration of this notes that it is keen to allow space for innovation.

OfS has been an ENQA affiliate member since 2018 (taking over the old HEFCE affiliation). It curiously does not mention that it renewed this affiliation in April 2023. As an affiliate it is open to attend meetings (OfS has attended 9 ENQA events in total since 2018 – and I understand this has not included any of the face-to-face meetings since the spring of 2022) and to participate in projects like QA-FIT – certainly even if it did not have the capacity to fully participate it would be aware that such work is ongoing and that it would be able to contribute.

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