The Office for Students (OfS) is the independent regulator for higher education in England. The aim of the OfS is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.
On 11 November 2021, the OfS published a consultation, which maps out its strategy as a regulator over the next three years. The consultation closed on 6 January 2022, with a number of bodies submitting responses, including the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), Universities UK and Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC).
The OfS proposals identify two central priorities of work: quality and standards, and equality of opportunity, which underpin its four primary regulatory objectives, which reflect duties and powers set out in sections 29-37 and 23-28 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
The consultation also covers the OfS’s objectives and goals for the period, how it intends to deliver them, as well as a minor addition to the regulatory framework.
Regarding the two areas of focus the OfS:
- Quality and standards
- Students receive a high quality academic experience that improves their knowledge and skills, with increasing numbers receiving excellent provision.
- Students are rigorously assessed, and the qualifications they are awarded are credible and comparable to those granted previously.
- Providers secure free speech within the law for students, staff and visiting speakers.
- Graduates contribute to local and national prosperity, and the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
- Equality of opportunity
- Students’ access, success and progression are not limited by their background, location or characteristics.
- Prospective students can choose from a diverse range of courses and providers at any stage of their life, with a wide range of flexible and innovative opportunities.
- Providers act to prevent harassment and sexual misconduct and respond effectively if incidents do occur.
- Providers encourage and support an environment conducive to the good mental health and wellbeing that students need to succeed in their higher education.
The OfS consider these two focus areas to be inextricably linked so that progress in one area is dependent on and supported by progress in the other. Furthermore, the OfS identified a number of goals to support these areas of focus, which represent specific outcomes for the next strategic period.
The full consultation can be found here.
Responses to the OfS strategy so far
Taking some of the responses in turn, what themes emerge?
UCAS’ response highlights a series of external considerations for the OfS to reflect upon, before then commenting directly on the two areas of focus proposed by the OfS:
- UCAS state that there is an unprecedented demand for education and training, which is set to continue to grow. This has implications for how the OfS will look to regulate the higher education market and promote the interests of students.
- UCAS wish to work with the OfS on both the ongoing sharing of intelligence and consistent messaging to the sector in regard to student-led reforms.
- UCAS state that it is essential given the evolution of the education and training landscape, OfS work jointly with the Institute for Apprenticeships, Ofqual, UCAS and partners to promote the rigour of apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications.
- UCAS confirm that they are best placed to provide the information and advice most important and relevant to the individual, including that related to quality of provision.
- UCAS states that they welcome the pivot in approach to Access and Participation. Through UCAS’s Fair Access Programme and broader investment across the UCAS estate, UCAS state they are seeking to support earlier aspiration raising.
Universities UK state that they support the OfS’ focus on quality and standards and equal opportunity. In summary of Universities UK response:
- Universities UK confirm that their members are already engaging in activities that they believe align strongly with many of the OfS’ goals. This includes collective activities led by Universities UK, as well as what their members are doing individually with their own students,
- Universities UK are encouraging OfS to work with the sector where there are opportunities for collaboration and to help promote good practice.
- In addition, Universities UK confirm that they welcome the continued commitment to reduce burden and bureaucracy through principles-based regulation. They state that this will allow universities to work in ways that best fit the needs of their students and the types of courses they provide, and to focus more of their attention on delivering teaching and learning and supporting students.
However, Universities UK have stated that more clarity is needed, including:
- How the OfS will implement and adapt its strategy to reflect student interests and priorities.
- How the OfS plans to operate as an organisation beyond the goals and regulatory activities listed.
- The potential impact of OfS’s preferred approach, which is focused primarily on monitoring and enforcement, rather than acting on problems in a public and transparent way.
- The need for a regulator that recognises and does not undermine the wide range of good work and innovation happening across the sector by focusing so much of its attention – and that of the public – on the minority of cases where things are not going as well as they should.
Whilst, again NMC agree with the OfS’ priorities of quality and standards, and equality of opportunity, NMC state that they wish to see more insight into the OfS’ precise regulatory standards to be able to consider this. Particularly:
- Whether the OfS’ strategy presents opportunities to reduce duplication and regulatory burden.
- NMC’s standards are designed to ensure that people are ready for professional practice on completing their degree and this is an important aspect to consider, and thus NMC wish for further engagement with the OfS regarding this.
The OfS aims to publish a summary of responses to the consultation by March 2022. The OfS will explain how and why they have arrived at their decisions, and how they have addressed any concerns raised by respondents.
The strategy will be published further to the publication of the summary of responses. We will track progress and report back once the finalised strategy is issued.
Enjoy That? You Might Like These: