What’s all this about another review of the OfS?

David Kernohan explains what a public body review is.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

There’s been a little bit of confusion out there this morning about a forthcoming review of the Office for Students.

As readers will not fail to have noticed, we’ve just completed the evidence gathering phase of the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee inquiry into the work of the Office for Students (if you have somehow missed this here’s a summary of the oral evidence, and there’s also been copious written evidence published).

Lords and clerks are currently beavering away at turning all this evidence into a review document – we’re expecting this to be published in July 2023, and it will be very shortly followed by a government response and most likely a response from OfS.

Public body review

Departments and agencies take recommendations from parliamentary inquiries seriously. At their best, a good committee report can change the course of policy – even at their worst it puts a great deal of evidence, perception, and opinion on the record.

But a parliamentary inquiry is not, by any means, the only way to review the work of an arms length body like OfS. We’ve talked before on the site about post-legislative scrutiny (where an act that creates a public body can be examined to see whether it is working as intended). But the most common route is via a public body review (PBR).

In December 2022 the Cabinet Office published a list of public bodies that are due a bit of independent scrutiny in the following financial year. This was an initiative sparked by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who some of you may remember once held responsibility for government efficiency, but it follows on from the 2010-2015 Public Bodies Reform Programme and the 2015-2020 Tailored Review Programme in reviewing the work of arms-length bodies (ALBs).

An ALB is a public sector agency that is independent (for varying degrees of independence) from its sponsoring department – it will have an independent chair and chief executive. Designed to make the technical bits of government work smoothly and efficiently these bodies are routinely derided as wasteful and corrupt in certain corners of public discourse – if you’ve heard the phrase “bonfire of the quangos” you will know what I mean.

Another one?

The Office for Students is not on the list for 2022-23, but it is widely understood that a review is planned for 2023-24. It’s been nominally in the public domain for a while (it came up in committee evidence) – with the delayed publication by Universities UK of the evidence it submitted to the Industry and Regulators Committee (and that the committee published last month) it became a bit more widely known yesterday.

The PBR will examine the “governance, accountability, efficacy, and efficiency” of each ALB it examines. It is risk-based, so the Office for Students will have been flagged by the accounting officer at DfE following the National Audit Office report.

The review will have an independent lead reviewer (from a pool maintained by the Cabinet Office), but most of the work will be done by DfE staff – who will investigate supported by a self-assessment report completed by the OfS itself. There’s a particular push for these reviews to focus on data and systems thinking, and lead reviewers are also required to identify savings of more than 5 per cent of the 2022-23 budget within 1-3 years.

Even if DfE goes in really deep with this review (and there is scope to customise aspects of the process to support specific circumstances) it should be completed in 6 months at the most. Stakeholders (potentially including the general public, but almost certainly including Universities UK and similar bodies here) will have the opportunity to feed in evidence.

However, these reviews are not punitive – the guidance suggests this should be a collaborative exercise driving effective joint action for public benefit. We do, however, get a published review and recommendations at the end of the process.

In expressing the hope that the IRC inquiry, report, and recommendations feed in to the PBR Universities UK (and others) are asking nothing more than that the PBR should draw on all available evidence.

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