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The Office for Students – finally starting to focus on students?

William Hammonds

William Hammonds

Programme Manager
Universities UK
The Office for Students – finally starting to focus on students?


​The Office for Students (OfS) – the new regulator for higher education in England – launched today its new regulatory fram​​ework which sets out how the organisation will carry out its work from April 2018 onwards.

Unsurprisingly, the framework doesn't differ massively from the consultation at the end of 2017, but there is a welcome shift in tone. It is more focused on the practicalities of regulating the sector, and it dispenses with some of the more adversarial political rhetoric. There is also a greater prominence to its statutory duties, in particular protecting the autonomy and diversity of institutions.

There are some important and significant changes. Most notably, the registered basic category has gone. This category was always problematic as the requirements were set so low in order to encourage providers to engage with the OfS that it risked misleading students about the protections they could expect. Notably the consultation only attracted five responses from providers who would have gone into this category. The dropping of probationary research degree awarding powers is also important.

There is a stronger emphasis on the student university relationship – something UUK called for during the consultation – and this shouldn't be underplayed. The Chief Executive of the OfS Nicola Dandridge has put student engagement at the front of her leadership of the new body. Although there has been justified criticism of the process for appointments to the board of the OfS, the commitment to give the Student Panel the resource and scope to challenge the OfS is welcome. The importance of student engagement has also been extended to key elements of the framework:

  • The objective of protecting students has dropped the narrow focus on consumer rights, which should help to capture the broader students interest in their relationship with their university.

  • The public interest governance condition now includes a reference to the governing body which should ensure that all students have opportunities to engage with the governance of the provider.

  • The condition B on quality has incorporated the new quality code's reference to providers actively engages students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience.

There is even a conciliatory statement about student unions and the role they play in the academic and wider experience of students and a commitment to work with them in this role. In addition, the senior leadership of the OfS and the chair of the student panel further emphasised that the OfS doesn't represent students, but regulates on their behalf. All of this is to be welcomed as a positive step toward a genuinely student-centred regulator.

There are still questions that will need to be ironed out as the OfS establishes itself. The streamlined presentation of the framework provides greater clarity, but there is an on-going process for the OfS to establish its independence. This is likely to be tested around freedom of speech, given the on-going political controversies about the topic. This is an area that is outside the OfS's statutory remit, but is included through the public interest governance principles.

The burden of the framework will also be fundamentally tied to the question of the quality of OfS judgement of risk and compliance. The OfS emphasises an open relationship, but stresses that while providers will be alerted where there may be issues with compliance, it wont be providing advice. The OfS recommends that providers look to sector bodies for advice and support, something that will need to be considered as part of a refresh of the co-regulatory approach in the sector.

It is clear from the framework that Chair of the OfS Michael Barber retains his welcome ambition for supporting innovation and securing outstanding student outcomes. The TEF is clearly linked to incentivising improved teaching and providing information to students. There is also a clarification that the OfS will work with providers to explore emerging issues and innovations. The extent to which this will translate into funding, alongside the need to support high cost subjects and the industrial strategy, is not totally clear.

Last but very much not least, value for money is still not defined beyond the interests of students and taxpayers. There was a preview of OfS research conference – led by student unions – at the launch conference. This highlighted nuanced student views of the costs and benefits of study, the importance of trust in their university to keep costs fair and the quantitative and qualitative factors that make up their experience. It will be essential for the sector to engage with this debate and how it is embedded into the work of the OfS and the outcomes of the funding review.

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