We can’t get no satisfaction

How do we know if the OfS is popular?

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Last day of term in the House of Commons means a chance for ministers to clear their in-tray of written questions.

Opposition higher education spokesperson Matt Western has been getting interested in how the effectiveness of the Office for Student is measured, and two questions on satisfaction – among those regulated by the OfS and among those who the OfS regulates on behalf of – have been dealt with by the current minister in interesting ways.

On satisfaction with OfS among universities, we learn that DfE regularly meets with mission groups to discuss views on

the impact of departmental policy and the Office for Students’ (OfS) approach to regulation

DfE also “understands” that OfS do similarly. It’s not clear why mission groups (membership of which does not include the majority of providers in England) have this privilege whereas Universities UK, IHE or GuildHE (actual sector representative bodies) do not.

We follow this up with a stern paragraph reminding us that OfS regulates in “the interests of students” rather than the sector – so “provider satisfaction is not necessarily a good measure of how well the OfS is performing its legislative (we think the minister means “statutory” here…) functions”.

Given that, you’d think that we’d know a lot more about what students think of what OfS does in their name, wouldn’t you?

Well, there’s a “student engagement strategy” (link is to an article by an experienced student representative, who was not impressed), a student experience member of the OfS board, and the student panel. And that, it would appear, is how we ensure students are satisfied. There are three “objectives” but no information as to how OfS knows how well it is doing other some airy language about student involvement.

OfS key performance measure 21 demands an external survey of perceptions of the OfS, covering all stakeholders to include students. This has never happened, and the very idea of a survey is apparently “under review” – we’re pointed to the OfS strategy for an explanation, but the strategy appears not to mention the idea of a perceptions survey at all.

Ofgem, Ofwat, and Ofcom regularly survey customers about the state of the market and the way it is regulated, and the views of those each organisation regulates. Each organisation, along with many other regulators, is a member of the UK regulatory network – a membership organisation that uses a scorecard approach to understand how regulators are seen by customers and stakeholders.

It is odd, to say the least, that OfS doesn’t bother. Especially as section 6.5 of the Regulators’ Code specifies that:

Regulators should publish, on a regular basis, details of their performance against their service standards, including feedback received from those they regulate, such as customer satisfaction surveys, and data relating to complaints about them and appeals
against their decisions.

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