The OfS measures its own regulatory burden

Last year 420,721 words of regulatory documentation were made available by the Office for Students. In comparison, JRR Tolkien's The Lord of The Rings trilogy has 455,125 words.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Of course, one of these volumes of literature is an era-defining mythic quest set in a meticulously detailed fantasy world. And – yes – the other one is about hobbits.

I dare say there are not many that have read every world of regulatory guidance, and to be scrupulously fair not every document is relevant to every reader. But I am concerned the sheer scale of guidance is too much for one person to hold, and that it is often difficult to grasp the impact of changes and additions without a lot of cross referencing. I’ve not found the bits with Tom Bombadil in yet, but I am sure they are there somewhere.

The Office for Students is committed to reducing provider subscriptions by 10 per cent in the next year – and I am sure it will follow the QAA’s lead and return previously paid funds to subscribers. Today’s release from OfS details the ways in which it will measure the scale of the regulatory burden via five quantitative measures:

  • Submitting data and information – maximum and minimum number of information returns per provider
  • Complying with enhanced monitoring – average number of conditions of registration subject to enhanced monitoring per provider
  • Developing and agreeing Access and Participation Plans – proportion of providers with a Plan in place
  • Understanding our regulatory approach – word count of regulatory documents per year, and proportion meeting readability target
  • Paying regulatory fees – average provider fees per student

Now these measures are welcome, as the OfS continues on the journey to becoming a reflective and responsive regulator. But I am worried that, although these measures look useful, they do not show what could be described as a “chilling effect” on providers and students. As Paul Greatrix has argued on Wonkhe the initial promise of risk-based regulation has not matched the lived experience of university administrators and managers – measures to limit burden during the pandemic were welcomed, but although I fear England’s Covid-19 story is not quite over yet we do appear to be heading into a “new normal” which is very similar to the old one.

As former chair Michael Barber doubtless argued, the mere act of setting and reporting against numerical targets is an important one, as is the kind of critical reflection that Nicola Dandridge offered us last March. But the mere act of telling the sector’s administrators that morale is improving and burden is lifting does not make it true.

Let’s be clear: regulatory fee cuts are very welcome, as is a more risk-based approach to monitoring and a reduction in submissions (those these both need to be balanced against public interest and transparency). But for an organisation to publish a hefty fantasy trilogy of rules and regulations each year for two years, respond to every government moral panic with threats of fines and clampdowns, and generally give the impression of a shifting regulatory landscape during a time of uncertainty and upheaval we will wait for the experience rather than the numbers to change.


3 responses to “The OfS measures its own regulatory burden

  1. OfS doing well on 4 of its not particularly stretching targets but – check the data – there’s a declining score on readability of its documents. Down to 58% in 2019-20.

  2. This, from the same people that complained the original Quality Code was too long and by revising it, created more burden….

    1. The quest to destroy the “one ring binder” did feature in an early version of this piece 🙂

Leave a Reply