Written evidence from University of Westminster (WOS0007)

Since our founding in 1838, as London’s first Polytechnic, to educate the working people of London, we have done much to break down barriers where none should exist, tackling social inequalities. As a progressive, responsible, and compassionate community we have become known for the many ways we enable our students to realise their full potential, regardless of background. We remain true to our original values and, today, the University of Westminster is global in outlook with a student population exceeding 20,323 students in 2021/22.

We have provided a response as we think its important that the views of the sector contribute to this review of the Office for Student and that we can work to an enhanced regulatory environment.

Our answers to some of your questions are provided below:

How closely does the OfS’ regulatory framework adhere to its statutory duties? How has this framework developed over time, and what impacts has this had on higher education providers?

The regulatory framework has developed to become more prescriptive, unhelpfully, over time.   The OfS does not work in an open way and this means that providers have to ensure compliance with every element rather than opting for the risk based approach that the regulator seems to advocate. As a sector we do not know where the tolerance is because investigations are conducted secretly and the outcomes are not shared. The regulator also does not regularly share information with providers to enable them to identify their risk profile in the eyes of OfS. The OfS rarely responds constructively to consultation responses, and rarely makes changes. This approach to consultation exercises means that providers do not have the confidence to be able to argue their approaches and so take a very compliance driven approach.

What is the nature of the relationship between the OfS and the Government? Does this strike the right balance between providing guidance and maintaining regulatory independence?

From a provider perspective it appears that the OfS is overly driven by ministerial interests (and sometimes by media interests). We are concerned that it does not sufficiently demonstrate regulatory independence.

Does the OfS have sufficient powers, resources and expertise to meet its duties? How will its expertise be affected by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s decision not to continue as the OfS’ Designated Quality Body?

This is unclear. It is worrying that that the QAA made the decision it did, but not surprising. We are unclear why the OfS had a problem with the QAA and the co-regulation approach that it adopted prior to the introduction of the OfS. It is unclear if sector standards have been maintained because OfS are only interested in a metric driven approach. In developing the B conditions OfS made it clear that the Quality Code didn’t align to those conditions but has never answered why that is the case. When you look at the two documents it is difficult to see what the problem might be. It is also concerning that the OfS have turned their back on alignment with the European Standards and guidelines and European and international alignment. The UK was a sector leader for quality assurance. Now English providers are having to justify an approach to international collaborators that defies logic.

How does the OfS engage with students? To what extent does input from students drive the OfS’ view of their interests and its regulatory actions to protect those interests?

There is a student panel but wider student engagement does not seem to happen. It is difficult to see how a diverse student viewpoint is driving OfS regulation. Without diverse student views its hard to demonstrate that OfS are protecting student interests, especially from a diverse range of providers. This lack of broader engagement means that sometimes OfS approaches seem to be concentrated on what might work in a high entry tariff campus based university. They seem out of touch with the realities of many modern students

What is the nature of the OfS’ relationship with higher education providers? Does the OfS strike the right balance between working collaboratively with universities and providing robust challenge?

It is a fraught relationship, providers do not know where they stand, they are ignored and not listened to when responding to consultations. The OfS has not demonstrated any willingness to work collaboratively

To what extent is the financial sustainability of providers determined by government policy and funding rather than the OfS’ regulation? Is there a need for policy change or further clarity to ensure the sustainability of the sector?

In our view the financial sustainability of providers is largely determined by government policy and funding and therefore a change will be needed to ensure long term financial sustainability across the sector. However, The lack of openness of OfS (for example in terms of their investigations and outcomes) drives – not the risk based approach that OfS say they hope for, but a detailed compliance focused approach that adds bureaucracy, and therefore cost, to the process of assurance. A more genuinely risk based and open approach could help financial sustainability and enable providers to focus on enhancement of learning and teaching in HE.

31 March 2023