We’re starting to see responses to the OfS equality of opportunity consultation

The latest OfS consultation has just closed, and the sector has some clear ideas on what needs to be further thought through

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The deadline for the Office for Students’ equality of opportunity consultation has now passed, and we’re beginning to see sector bodies publish their responses.

It should be said from the start that responses so far are more welcoming of the OfS’ new approach than was the case for the previous consultation on changes to the NSS – where the tone of responses could fairly be characterised as “why are you doing this to us?” – but there are lots of points of contention.

Sector-level threats

First up, UCAS. While generally supportive, it suggests that in some circumstances, sector-wide action would be a more effective route to tackle equality of opportunity risks than doing so at the provider level. It highlights two immediate, system-level threats: forecast rise in demand for post-secondary education – the “journey to a million applicants” it is fond of referring to – and the cost of living crisis. On the former:

It will be critical to plan for this increase and ensure capacity can keep up. The risk of not doing so is that disadvantaged students get squeezed out, reversing fifteen years of progress […] Without sector wide action, there is real potential for this capacity squeeze and increased competition to have a greater impact on disadvantaged students, creating a new equality of opportunity crisis.

On the latter, we see that UCAS has plenty of data showing how 2022 entrants are being impacted by financial concerns, and the promise that this will be explored in some depth as end of cycle data comes out.

Get the data right

UCAS also suggests that its own Multiple Equality Measure (MEM) be used within OfS’ Equality of Opportunity Risk Register (EORR) as well as those of individual providers, and welcomes further discussions about how the range of different measures of deprivation the sector now has to draw upon are going to work together. Dialogue is needed on data:

A key focus of the OfS will be evidence-based strategies for tackling drop-out rates […] We are also exploring how our data, linked to third parties, can provide an indicator as to likely level of support need once enrolled. We’d welcome discussion with the OfS about how we might work together on this initiative.

Interestingly – and in line with the recurrent theme of OfS working more in partnership with the sector – UCAS also puts itself forward as “the right channel for sharing accessible summaries of APPs with students”, a key idea of the new approach, and calls for these summaries to be more personalised to individual students. It also sensibly points out that information about the level of financial support on offer will change more often than a four-year cycle allows:

The level of detail proposed in the APP summaries (e.g. availability of financial support), may not always be appropriate since this information is likely to be refreshed annually. In a scenario whereby plans are refreshed every four years, there is a risk that prospective students may access outdated information.

Culture change

The second consultation response we’ve had published is from London Higher, who welcome the move away from national targets which often have the “unintended effect of incentivising behaviours that are not in the long-term interests of students or institutions”.

However, London Higher expresses concerns about the proposed four-year cycle for the big issues around equality of opportunity, noting that longer term culture change is a “complex, messy and generation-long process”:

London Higher is not opposed to the OfS’s plans to publish information about their judgement about whether a provider has appropriately delivered the commitments in its approved access and participation plan, but these judgements will need to be informed by a recognition of what is possible to achieve in four years when tackling large-scale, long-term issues with complex, intersectional causes.

We also get a call for a first draft of the EORR to be published as a priority so that providers can understand how it will work in practice, and a flagging of the likely burden on small and specialist providers of the new approach.

Some of the sternest words in London Higher’s response are reserved for the lack of mention of Uni Connect in the OfS proposals, all contributing to a sense that all the work done developing partnerships between schools and higher education providers is going to be swept away in the new approach:

If it is serious about the HE sector contributing to a step change in pre-16 attainment, the OfS will harness the significant expertise that has been developed in the area of school partnerships by the 29 regional Uni Connect partnerships in England. It will also address the funding cliff that the programme currently faces in 2025 to ensure that it can be properly aligned with and support delivery of the next iteration of APPs.

Constant consultation

We’ll be on the lookout for other published consultation responses – send them my way if you’ve got them. Since joining Wonkhe, collecting up sector responses to OfS consultations has become something of a hobby.

On the proposed changes to the National Student Survey, we had published feedback from QAA, GuildHE, Universities UK, Universities Scotland, HEFCW, Chartered ABS, University Alliance, Student Minds and UCAS – apologies if I’ve missed anyone. All raised sensible objections to some or many of the planned alterations, and as we’ve covered recently, all were roundly ignored as the changes went ahead.

Since that consultation closed in September, we’ve had this one on equality of opportunity, and the promise of another on tackling sexual misconduct in the new year. Much has been said about the regulatory burden of constant consultation, especially for small and specialist providers. The question now will be whether OfS will take on board the responses in formulating its next steps on access and participation.

Update: since publishing this piece, we’ve also received consultation responses from MillionPlus – who broadly endorse the proposals but flag risks around small providers and those with more diverse student bodies, as well as aiming sharp criticism at the possibility of universities having targets based on their relationships with schools – and QAA who, responding in their capacity as regulator of the Access to HE Diploma, are deeply sceptical: firstly, for the lack of clarity over how mature students fit in, and secondly because the example EORR from the consultation “contains such a broad risk and objective that it is currently not possible to assess how this will be useful”.

Update 2: Here is University Alliance’s response, which focuses – among other things – on the cost burden of additional regulation.

Leave a Reply