The consultation for the new regulatory framework for the Office for Students (OfS) has been launched today. The consultations represent a major step toward enacting the Higher Education and Research Act and the proposals set out in the 2016 Higher Education White Paper in England. In this respect, there are few major surprises for anyone who has been following the reforms or more recent ministerial statements closely. However, this is a new approach to regulating the sector with new language and mechanisms. The detail of the proposals, how they interpret the provisions of the act and how the different parts mesh together will be key to its long-term success.
The size of the exercise is illustrated by the range of consultations released. The core consultation is accompanied by a registration conditions guidance document and detailed information on the proposed transitional arrangements for providers. There is a consultation relating to the OfS registration fees (part 2) which is major break from the funding relationship with HEFCE. The consultation on degree awarding powers and university title is a crucial part of the OfS's role as a market regulator with powers of market exit and entry. Finally the designation of a data body and designation of a quality body are key elements of a co-regulatory architecture.
At the heart of the new system is the higher education register that enables the Office for Students to apply general and specific conditions of registration, including sanctions, to a range of institutions, including those who weren't previously funded by HEFCE. The conditions are intended to mitigate the risks to students in relation to poor quality and standards, consumer protection, value for money and fair access and participation for students from different backgrounds. Some of the notable measures include:
Notably, the public interest governance condition will incorporate commitments around protecting freedom of speech. The prominence of this in the announcement was an odd choice given it risks distracting from the central purpose of the OfS and may alienate many students and more recent graduates. Nevertheless, freedom of speech is an important topic and universities take this responsibility very seriously. The actual proposals appear to be a gold plating of existing laws that have been in place since the 1980s and have been high on the sector's agenda since the introduction of the Prevent duty in 2015.
This also illustrates a key challenge facing the OfS – how do you genuinely regulate in the interests of students? As noted by the Competition Markets Authority (CMA) and the consultation itself, regulation should focus on maintaining strong baselines and encouraging ethical and responsible behaviours by providers. In this respect, the key relationship in this system isn't between universities and the OfS but between universities and students. This raises important considerations for the OfS and the sector:
The consultation is the first step of a long process for the OfS. As the consultation says, quoting George Orwell, 'if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear'. This sentiment applies to the sector but also to the OfS as it develops its relationship with students and autonomous universities. The real challenge for the OfS is the extent to which it is willing to listen and work with universities and students to help maintain the UK's world leading higher education sector.
I may be being pedantic, but we also take great heed of what alumni tell us, hence the question arises - whi is better informed regards quality issues? Past or present students?? I admit surprise as in business, customer feedback is always used to map progress (yes I don't see students as customers though)?