The handful of minor changes to the draft Office for Students strategy that we first saw in November of last year show very few significant shifts.
This analysis was written before we had sight of the full consultation response (released this morning) but never fear! – we will get to that in due course.
We went in deep on the main themes of the proposed strategy at the time – now it is an actual strategy everything we said then still applies.
Goals, focuses, objectives, aims
For those in a hurry, the OfS now has eleven “goals” within two “areas of focus” and the wider theme of “enabling regulation”, underpinning three objectives plus the crosscutting theme that is value for money. We’ll spare you most of the goals – but those two areas remain “quality and standards” and “equality of opportunity”. (Interestingly, the value for money cross-cutting theme has been demoted from being an “area” in its own right).
A lot of the compliance focused language has gone from the final version. No longer are we faced with stark warnings such as:
Where it is proportionate to do so, we prevent providers operating below the baseline from accessing public money and other benefits
That idea is replaced with the sunnier:
Much of the provision in the English higher education sector is exemplary; our focus as a regulator will be on addressing cases that fall short
This softens the language, if not the intentions, of the regulator.
Oh, yeah, students and other regulators
The first notable addition concerns something that you’d have imagined would have been of primary concern to a regulator focused on the student interest – students. We get a promise that the contribution of the student panel will be both maintained and enhanced – and this comes alongside a commitment to engage directly with students and student unions.
From the National Audit Office report we see the addition of engagement with providers in order to “understand their views and perspectives”. And there’s clearly been some thinking about other regulators in this space too – for the first time there are promises to engage and collaborate with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, Ofsted (degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications), professional statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs; on courses where they are involved), and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA; on FE colleges).
The OfS will also undertake to support its own staff to engage with students effectively – so that views can be embedded within everything the Office for Students does. That said – we also get a new commitment to:
Engage with students to help them to understand what free speech within the law means in the context of their higher education experience
Perhaps this could have been phrased a bit better.
Providers, not so much
As per section 50 51 of the Higher Education and Research Act, OfS has the power to validate higher education courses via partnerships with providers or on its own account. So the addition of a paragraph that states:
We will also consider whether we should intervene in the validation system to increase the availability of high quality courses across England
suggests a rediscovered appetite to shape provision (in local or disciplinary terms).
A section in the initial consultation highlights that the regulator needs a sector to regulate in order to achieve the strategy’s lofty ambitions – recognising the “need to influence providers and other actors in the sector to bring about the changes needed to achieve them”. This is all gone in the final version – we can only hope that OfS doesn’t feel it can do all of this stuff itself.
Value from consultation
A non-committal paragraph on mental health , the deletion of undertakings to use funding to support “regulatory sandboxes”, and the puzzling removal of a section setting out a desire to publish outcomes data by provider (something OfS already does via HESA and in the Access and Participation dashboard, and will continue to do if the consultation on B3 currently underway works out the way it hopes) completes the substantive changes to this document.
Without a formal report on the consultation it is difficult to see what value there was in running nearly identical text past the sector last year. Certainly on the evidence of this finalised version either OfS got everything right the first time, or the sectors comments were very much “given regard to” rather than acted on.