The House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee inquiry hearings into the work of the Office for Students have concluded.
In drawing up the final report, the committee will also have regard to a great deal of written evidence, submitted in response to an open call for evidence earlier this year. This evidence has now, following due diligence on data protection, been published.
In all, there are 58 submissions – ranging from informed opinions from individuals to corporate responses from universities and representative bodies. The Department for Education has submitted a response, as has OfS itself (a gravity warping 11,000 words, or a little over a third of the length of George Orwell’s Animal Farm). The QAA has submitted a full response and an addendum.
The big marmalade-dropping moment of the hearings was the revelation by former members that the OfS student panel very much felt that they were there as a privilege that could be revoked. On this, Miranda Harmer’s evidence as another former panel member is telling:
The Student Panel was made aware that our position was one of privilege, and there were comments and concerns about having that privilege revoked. This made the Panel’s position feel very precarious – there were worries about damaging future iterations of the Panel and destroying independent and impartial student engagement within the OfS and its work, which impacted the engagement and voice of the Panel.
There was a promise of the Student Panel being able to undertake research and we began mindmapping possible topics, but this never came to fruition. I believe there was a reluctance on the OfS’ side due to staff capacity and because of potential research topics, possible outcomes, and potential backlash from the sector or the public.
The sense of the work of the panel being poorly understood was also picked up in the NUS response:
While it is undoubtedly true that the presence of a student panel and a student on the Board informs the work of OfS, clarity is needed on the role of the panel as an internal sounding board or as an internal lobbying group on behalf of students; similarly there is a need for OfS to communicate back to students the impact of engagement.
Multiple episodes in the enquiry highlighted a certain exasperation with the state of the relationship between OfS and its erstwhile designated quality body (DQB), the QAA. As we understand it, it is simultaneously true that OfS had expressed an unhappiness with elements of the work conducted by the QAA during parts of its tenure as DQB and that the QAA had experienced issues with the failure of OfS’s quality and standards requirements to comply with accepted international standards.
There’s a lot of dispute over this narrative and the way it is perceived more widely. The QAA submitted extra evidence after Susan Lapworth and James Wharton took the stand in May, and the simple statement that “it is our view that the triennial report substantially misrepresents QAA’s record as DQB” is followed by a rebuttal of OfS statements on the amount of feedback QAA was given on initial quality report drafts (I’d note you’d expect anything written for publication to go through some form of drafting process).
It probably desperately dull to anyone outside of this dispute, but:
- OfS claims that for “the most recent year” (April 2021- March 2022) some 64 per cent of reports could not be used, and 88 reports had been commissioned over the entire lifespan of the DQB role.
- QAA notes that for “the most recent year” (April 2022- March 2023) 66 reports were commissioned and 2 (just 3 per cent) received feedback, and that QAA had 41 active assessments after requisition demission from the DQB role in July 2022.
QAA adds that it feels “it is neither in the best interests of students or the sector to engage in a protracted public disagreement with OfS on this matter.” Although given the regularity with which this issue turned up during the inquiry, and the fact that even the Free Churches Group of England and Wales has an opinion, I fear that ship may have sailed.
One of the joys of committee evidence is the vignettes into disputes and issues tangentially related to the theme. Here’s a few I spotted.
Simon Cohen works for a company that commissioned research from a university – he claims they did it badly, and that publications had to be withdrawn due to unreliable data. He raised a concern that a number of students have been awarded degrees based on this same unreliable data. He’s attempted to raise this with the Office for Students – and after numerous complaints via various routes he does not feel that he has gotten satisfaction.
The National Secular Society has gathered evidence (a summary of which is included in an annex) that three theological colleges registered with the Office for Students may be in breach of public interest governance principles. It reports OfS has “steadfastly refused” to engage in discussion (even about whether or not these issues are under investigation) or to take action. Fascinatingly – given how keen OfS has been in asking people to complain to them about universities via the notifications process – they cite a letter in which James Wharton claims the OfS “is not a complaint handling body, and does not have a remit to investigate individual complaints.”
Geoffrey Alderman at Nelson College was told off (via a “full and frank exchange of views”, no less) for categorising elements of Extinction Rebellion as a “quasi-fascist” and “far-right” group for Prevent monitoring purposes. He was asked to remove half a sentence from the college Prevent Risk Register before approval.
Three academics – Dave Hitchcock, Sylvia De Mars, Emma Kennedy – take the opportunity to argue for the return of student number controls. This is something that is outside of the ambit of OfS.
The University of East Anglia argues for the removal of the “Russell Group” metric in 16-18 DfE data (very much a DfE rather than OfS issue), and notes that among the OfS guidance publications “the procedure to follow in the event of financial difficulties is commendably clear and easy to follow.”
The case for the prosecution?
It feels like the statements from representative bodies will carry a fair amount of weight as the committee settles into the evidence-digesting part of the inquiry.
Universities UK has some discrete and thoughtful asks – including a mechanism for reviewing the burden of regulation and removing rules that are no longer relevant. There’s a request to restart some mothballed work on reviewing registration fee funding (and OfS value for money), and to kick the Higher Education Data Reduction Taskforce back into action. More work is sought on improving OfS processes, and securing international recognition for quality and standards assessments. The team at Woburn House have an eye, of course, on next year’s public bodies review of OfS.
GuildHE is focused on simplification, accountability, risk-based regulation (noting that regulation needs to take into account resources available to smaller providers), and supporting compliance rather than prioritising enforcement. The DQB issue is raised again – GuildHE has “a number of concerns” about OfS taking on the role longer term. And for data burden fans, there’s a very sensible reminder of the “collect once, use often” principle as it applies to the many regulators with an interest in higher education.
Independent HE has, as you might imagine, a laser-like focus on joining the register – providing a range of fascinating examples where the processes (simplifying these was, of course, a key aim of HERA) have proved unyielding and ineffective. IHE would also very much like the long promised “regulatory sandbox” to open for business, citing the activities of a range of members that bring genuine innovation to teaching.
Overall, it is fair to say that the sector has limited support for OfS as it is currently configured – hardly news in the grand scheme of things, but it is clear that the committee will be able to provide a great deal of evidence to back this up.