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Setting up the Office for Students: what's new?

​The consultation for the new regulatory framework for the Office for Students (OfS) has been launched today. 

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:

  • Making the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) a condition of registration. Although this is unsurprising given the uncertainty around the link to fees, this is a clear departure from what was debated in parliament and envisaged in the Act. This also makes a robust and independent review of the TEF, as required by the Act, even more important.
  • Arrangements for ongoing monitoring of a provider's compliance with conditions of registration. This represents an iteration of the HEFCE annual provider review but reintroduces a cyclical element through random sampling that may be useful for European quality recognition. The OfS's interpretation and tolerance of risk, and its ability to work with the data and quality bodies, will be key to how this approach operates in practice.
  • The initial registration process. There is going to be a lot of work to do over the next year and half. This is going to represent a significant logistical process for institutions and the OfS itself as it brings a large number and wide range of providers on boards. It is essential that this goes smoothly.
  • New degree awarding powers, including the temporary powers for providers without a track record that were proposed in the white paper plus a version of Taught degree awarding powers for up to level six (not postgraduate) that will be attractive to further education colleges. There is also some detail about how the OfS will validate and award degrees that illustrates neatly why it shouldn't have been given this power in the first place.
  • The proposal to link the OfS registration fee to the size of provider. This is likely to mean that low risk providers will end up subsidising the cost of regulating high risk providers. The document holds our potential to adopt a risk based approach in future. This is something that will need to be looked at as a matter of urgency.

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:

  1. How can we ensure that the OfS genuinely operates in the interests of student? For example, will there be strong NUS representation on the OfS board? The proposals for a student voice panel are useful but the lesson from other regulators is that it needs independence and capacity to challenge the OfS and its decisions.
  2. What role can the student contract play to support the relationship between students and universities? The consultation document rightly proposes that this should build on the requirements of the CMA. This is an opportunity to continue to support a collaborative and accountable relationship between universities and students.
  3. Are students being safeguarded against poor quality and transient providers across the whole sector? For example, students have an interest in the sustainability of their provider, regardless of whether it receives public funds. The commitment that student protection plans should focus on continuity of study is welcome.

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.​

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andy penaluna
andy penaluna says:
24 October 2017 at 12:35

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)?

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