We finally got to the first set of higher education specific measures in the House of Lords Committee stage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill last night.
It was Clause 17 – the bit that “puts beyond doubt” the Office for Students’ right to set absolute (unbenchmarked) minimum values for outcome measures, something that was not clear last year when the regulator got into trouble at Bloomsbury.
Amendments fell into three broad groups (although all were marshalled as a single group in the debate):
- Measures proposed by the Liberal Democrats to put a duty on the Office for Students to measure – somehow – the quality of provider support for student mental health and wellbeing.
- Measures proposed by Lord (Good Schools Guide) Lucas, Lord (David) Willetts, and Labour’s Baroness Sherlock around putting safeguards on the ability of the OfS to do silly non-benchmarked things in the name of regulating quality
- The magnificent Baroness Sherlock amendment 70, that sought to get the OfS squarely behind the UK Quality Code like proper regulators are, rather than just messing about with metrics.
Baroness Penn (formerly Theresa May’s chief of staff) spoke for the government in response.
She noted that, as things stand, section 23 of HERA makes no restrictions as to how the OfS might make an assessment of quality – it’s the fact that HERA doesn’t explicitly let the regulator regulate as it currently is doing (via absolute measures) that the new clause addresses.
She was full of emollient words on mental health, as you might expect – the government backs Universities UK’s “Step Change” project, the Universities Mental Health Charter and pretty much anything else you can remember – but she confessed that the current feeling in DfE and OfS was that the issue was not best addressed in legislation. There is nothing stopping the OfS adding a condition of registration about mental health support, after all.
The stuff restricting the ability of OfS to do silly things also got fairly short shrift – the regulator has to consult the sector every time it changes the regulatory framework, and she noted the consultations on B conditions that are planned for the autumn. On the benefit of absolute measures, the position seems to be the very Iain Mansfield one that benchmarks risk entrenching disadvantage in the system – unconvincing when it is the graduate job market, not universities, that is entrenching disadvantage.
OfS has convinced DfE that it will make a rounded judgment of quality, in that it will not just look at absolute measures when deciding to intervene. It already has the ability to intervene at subject (or even course level – the B3 Bear was there all along!) but this needs to be balanced by proportionality. Baroness Garden had called out that one, and it was great to hear the minister confirm it. We also learned that – as we may have guessed – OfS and DfE are working together on how to measure quality in modular provision.
Lord Willetts (amendment 69) had asked if the OfS could evaluate the effects of the decision to use absolute measures – we didn’t quite get a commitment on this (OfS is technically independent, what with its chair that takes the government whip and was notably absent from today’s debate and everything) but it seems reasonable to hope that a responsive regulator will do so.
And finally the Quality Code – we got some useful language that OfS does not have the power to abolish the code and it will therefore continue to play an important part in quality assurance across the whole UK, but the position seems to be that the Regulatory Framework will cover all the UKQC requirements so there is no need for the OfS to mention it.
All the amendments were withdrawn, but expect to see more action here at report stage.