Written evidence from Academic Registrars’ Council (WOS0014)

About the Academic Registrars’ Council               2

Summary               2

Detailed Responses               3

Question 4: 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 (DQB)?               3

Retention of students’ assessed work               3

Regulatory burden               3

Changing conditions of registration               4

Consultation failings               4

Approach to access and participation               5

The impact of the QAA’s decision to demit its role as DQB               6

Question 5: How does the OfS measure value for money for students?  How can this be measured in an objective, tangible way that is not based on economic or political judgements about the value of subject areas or types of institution?               8

The OfS’s approach               8

How can value for money be measured               8

Question 6: 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?              9

Engagement is not comprehensive, transparent or effective               9

A better route to student engagement               10

Question 7: 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              10

Consultations               10

Understanding of the sector               11

Co-operative regulation               11

Advice and Guidance               12

Question 9: What business models are present in the UK higher education sector?  Are these models resilient to the financial risks of the sector, and are universities focusing sufficiently on having a viable business model              12

Fee caps and international recruitment              12

Regulation as a barrier to innovation              13

Threats to subject diversity, coverage and widening access              13

Question 11: What is the OfS’ tolerance for the failure of higher education providers, and what processes are in place to manage provider failure?  Would the failure of a large provider follow a clear regulatory process or is there the potential for political considerations to play a role in such decisions?              13

Student protection plans              13

Student protection directions              14

Concerns              14

About the Academic Registrars’ Council

The Academic Registrars’ Council (ARC) is the national forum of senior managers responsible for the academic administration of student matters in publicly funded universities and colleges of higher education within the United Kingdom.  ARC seeks to:

All public UK universities and colleges of higher education are entitled to be represented in ARC.

Our principal areas of interest that are relevant to the work of the OfS are admissions, assessment, quality assurance, student records and student case work such as complaints, discipline and appeals.  Our response to the call for evidence therefore focuses on the questions more relevant to these areas of interest.  In preparing the response, we consulted our members.


ARC is supportive of the sector being properly and appropriately regulated. This requires proportionate, risk-informed and transparent regulation, as befits a mature and generally high-performing sector such as higher education.

Therefore, we have serious concerns about the OfS’s approach to regulation to date.  In this response we:



Question 4: 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?

We have a number of concerns as to whether the OfS has the expertise to meet its duties.  Some of its expectations are not underpinned by an expert understanding of the higher education context.

Retention for students’ assessed work

For example, in relation to conditions of registration B4 (assessment and awards) and B5 (sector recognised standards), the OfS has introduced a requirement to retain students’ assessed work for a period of five years after the end of the course.  In describing how it will assess compliance with these conditions, the OfS’s Regulatory Framework states (paragraphs 336L to 336N):

As part of its approach to assessing compliance with this condition, the OfS and the designated quality body are likely to need access to students’ assessed work, including for students who are no longer registered on a course. A provider is therefore expected to retain appropriate records of students’ assessed work for such regulatory purposes for a period of five years after the end date of a course. Where possible, a provider is expected to retain records of student assessments in an anonymised form by removing students’ personal data from the records.

However, in doing so, it should ensure that removal of students’ personal data would not limit the OfS’s ability to assess the provider’s compliance with condition B5, including by ensuring that all of the work of an individual student can be identified from the records

The absence of records of students’ assessed work may lead the OfS to make negative inferences about a provider’s compliance and/or may result in the OfS taking targeted regulatory action to address the risk that it is unable to monitor compliance and regulate effectively.

Regulatory burden

These requirements, which were introduced in May 2022, represent an enormous burden for institutions. For example, one institution with 20,885 students calculates that it had the following assessments in the 2021/2022 academic year alone:


It does not appear that the OfS carried out any assessment of the impact or cost of this requirement before implementing it, certainly not one that it asked the sector to contribute to, nor has it produced any evidence that such a requirement is proportionate and necessary to enable it to assess quality and standards.

Crucially, when the quality and standards conditions were consulted on this requirement was substantially differently (and more proportionately) expressed so the sector was unaware of the need to raise its concerns at that stage. The consultation draft merely required the following: Providers are therefore expected to retain appropriate records of students’ assessed work for such regulatory purposes.

No explanation has been given by the OfS why it changed its requirements in this way without due consultation, nor has it agreed to reconsider them in response to the near universal and serious difficulties the policy is likely to create. If, belatedly, it acknowledges that these requirements are not necessary, institutions will have wasted huge sums in trying to comply up to that point.

Further analysis of the scale of the problem can be found here.


However, this is just one example of the increased burden on providers despite the OfS arguing that it would be focussed on risk and would look to reduce the regulatory burden.  This burden falls disproportionately on smaller providers, who are given no dispensation.


Changing conditions of registration

Additional burdens have been created by the substantial changes to conditions that have occurred in the relatively short time the OfS has existed. When it published its first iteration of the Regulatory Framework in 2018, it represented a departure from existing sector practice in a number of respects. For example, the OfS made a deliberate choice to move away from existing sector approaches to quality and standards. The sector adapted to comply. Fewer than four years later, including two years where the sector had worked incredibly hard to respond to the ever-changing requirements placed upon it during Covid, the OfS completely changed its requirements. Again, the sector will have to divert resources to ensure and demonstrate compliance.  The OfS’s response has been that the sector can reduce the burden by abandoning its longstanding, well established quality assurances processes and creating new ones that better align, in the OfS’s views, with its requirements, which betrays a complete misunderstanding of the substantial efforts this will entail (see for example paragraphs 196 – 227 of the analysis of responses to the first stage of the consultation). There is also no guarantee that the OfS will not revise its approach again if its new approach does not deliver the results it wants to secure and so this is an ongoing concern for institutions.

The changes to registration conditions and other regulatory developments often seem aligned to and driven by political interventions by Ministers rather than by the proportionate, evidence-based regulation the sector would welcome. For example, in January 2021, at the request of the then Minister, the OfS required all registered HE providers to complete a self-assessment showing how they had complied with consumer protection law and the registration condition relating to the CMA’s guidance.

It has never done anything with those assessments. The government is preparing to give the OfS wide-ranging powers regarding freedom of speech, which, without greater independence and proportionality on the part of the OfS, have the potential to create a significant amount of unnecessary bureaucracy if not done right.

Consultation failings

Another manifestation of its lack of expertise is that at a very basic level OfS does not seem to understand the sector. Consultations are often timed poorly, to coincide with the start of the academic year or over ‘holiday’ periods with short turnaround times for feedback and then implementation. Consultations during the pandemic did not appear to recognise the immense pressure the pandemic placed on the sector and workload for staff.  All of this shows a lack of awareness about the cyclical flow of the academic year and how university governance works. The timing of the introduction of subsequent changes to registration conditions also mean changes mid-year which can affect the student experience. For example, the new quality and standards conditions were introduced in the middle of May 2022, effective immediately, just before most institution’s busiest examination periods.

Approach to access and participation

The recent approach to Access and Participation Plan (APP) planning, another source of frustration for the sector, raises further questions about the OfS’s expertise.

By way of background, the OfS’s approach to access and participation adopted in 2018 was itself a significant change from the arrangements that went before. Institutions were required to submit plans over the following five years under regulations that made it clear that it was for governing bodies to determine the best way to achieve equality of opportunity in access to and participation in the institution.  The OfS recognised at that time that this required long-term initiatives and institutions invested in developing such initiatives. In November 2021, during the pandemic, ministers wrote to the OfS seeking a refresh of the access and participation approach. In February 2022 the new Director of Access and Participation set out his new priorities for APPs  and in April 2022, the OfS published guidance inviting providers to request variations to their APPs for the academic year 2023-24 to address the new strategic priorities. On 6 October the OfS launched a consultation that ran for six weeks on its new approach to regulating access and participation.

Despite expecting the sector to respond within such a short time,  the OfS’s response to the consultation was not published until over four months later Before the response was published, the OfS decided to pause the timetable for adopting its new approach.

The problems with this chronology to a large extent speak for themselves, but there are the following additional difficulties:

The OfS’ risk-based regulation and the mechanics of the APP process stifle valuable collaboration and partnership between HEIs. There is no incentive to develop a long-term view of widening participation priorities outside of the APP planning process that might lead to joint initiatives, given that the goalposts change with each cycle and have to be shoehorned into numerical targets for each provider.

Educational inequalities are long-term and stubbornly persistent – they will take a consistent and strategic approach to dismantle them from the very earliest stages of education. HEIs cannot make a valuable and sustained contribution to this work if priorities are changing every three or four years. Cutting short the current APP timeline is an example of this, with all attention now on the vastly different priority areas in the new APP Variations.

Huge amounts of time across HEIs will have been spent preparing APP Variations documents, responding to the lengthy consultations in very short timeframes and preparing for the new APP cycle that has been now been delayed for most at the last minute. This has indisputably taken time, resource and attention away from delivering commitments in current APPs and other pressing issues facing students such as housing shortages, cost of living concerns and the growing crisis in students’ mental health.

Frequent changes in direction, complete abandonment of previous priorities and performance measures and delays to processes have eroded the sector’s trust in the regulator and its ability to gain institutional commitment and buy-in to access and participation strategies. The initial change in regulatory approach in 2018 and five-year APPs gained attention and traction within HEIs that led to a greater level of funding and value than ever before. This progress is now at significant risk given the OfS’ recent behaviour.

The impact of the QAA’s decision to demit its role as DQB

Against the background above, the ARC has serious concerns about the loss of the DQB. These fall within a number of categories:

The statutory responsibilities of the OfS are wide ranging.  The breadth of these responsibilities means that it may not have the necessary resources and/or depth of expertise to undertake quality and standards assessments itself.

With the QAA’s decision not to continue as the DQB, the OfS will be undertaking the DQB responsibilities itself, and currently it is undetermined as to whether this will be a permanent arrangement or whether a new, independent DQB will be sought. The statutory criteria for designation of the DQB may make it difficult for a replacement to be found. 

To support its DQB responsibilities, the OfS is seeking to expand its pool of academic experts as assessment increases, which indicates that the OfS does not currently have sufficient resources or expertise to meet the DQB duties. There is also currently no transparency around the selection of these experts, or their qualifications to be considered experts.

We do not consider that the OfS draws on those with sector expertise sufficiently, and consider that it is more than possible to utilise that expertise whilst also maintaining objectivity. The use of experts on the recent Teaching Excellence Framework panels demonstrates that sector expertise is vital for the OfS to perform its duties appropriately and that such expertise can be used effectively.


The importance for an independent body to assess quality and standards was stressed by the Lords during the passage of HERA, and ultimately resulted in the Government amendment to introduce the Designated Quality Body (DQB) function. This has been lost.

The DQB has responsibilities to advise the OfS on degree awarding powers and on degree apprenticeships, so in discharging the role of the DQB the OfS is essentially advising itself. 



The QAA’s departure from overseeing Quality and Standards is a massive blow. They have built up substantial credibility, expertise and support within the sector – nationally and internationally – over many years. Having the QAA as an independent and strong DQB has been a major source of strength for HE in the UK, sustaining the reputation of our HEIs. There is a threat to the international perception of English higher education.


The QAA engenders a great deal of UK and international respect for the quality of its work and it is active in promoting quality around the world; this cannot be said for the OfS.  With the QAA stepping down from being the DQB, significant expertise and esteem built up by them will be lost.  It will take time for the OfS to build its reputation should it remain as the DQB, but it is questionable that it will ever be held in the same regard as an independent body.

Degree programmes in England now sit outside any internationally recognised system of quality assurance; the United Kingdom (England) is no longer fully aligned with the European Standards and Guidelines (ESG).  With Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland being fully aligned, this will have an impact on the high esteem our programmes are held in, as well as on future recruitment.  We cannot rely on the reputation of English higher education to cover this standards gap.

If the OfS were to take on DQB responsibilities permanently it would lead to a permanent loss of independent oversight of quality assurance in England and go against international standards.


It is an internationally recognised principle that students should be involved in quality assurance, and the OfS’s reluctance to involve students in quality assurance matters (a contributing factor to the QAA demitting as DQB and English degree programmes no longer being aligned to ESG) is problematic.

The lack of student input into the OfS’s regulatory duties shows that the student voice is very much missing, to the detriment of decisions being made.

The DQB successor body needs to be independent and command the confidence of providers, students and employers,

We do not have confidence in the OfS to be able to undertake the quality and standards duties as this presents a conflict of interest for the OfS.

Within itself the OfS’ expertise is not sufficient for the task and it will deteriorate further by the loss of QAA and its convening power, especially when it comes to working effectively with the student voice.

OfS will therefore need to replicate the significant expertise that in our experience is in place currently within the existing DQB. Indeed, our sense is that the reason for QAA demitting as the DQB has less to do with the concerns about its expertise and ability to provide advice to the OfS against a range of specific quality and standards frameworks. The issue appears to be one of QAA not being able to fulfil the OfS wider requirements of the DQB around its published processes for regulation (for example the issue of publishing reports). The fact that the QAA has felt it has to take the decision not to continue is very unfortunate, and the OfS will not itself be able to fill that space. It would be better to find a way for the QAA to feel it can continue.

Question 5: How does the OfS measure value for money for students? How can this be measured in an objective, tangible way that is not based on economic or political judgements about the value of subject areas or types of institution?

The OfS’s approach

The OfS states that it measures value for money for students in terms of student participation, experience and outcomes, high continuation rates and good degrees which hold their value over time. 

The OfS measures these through the Conditions of Registration, especially the B Conditions Quality and Standards, and proxies such as continuation, completion and progression data, through the National Student Survey, and through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).  There remain doubts as to how to measure the value of teaching, as finding an appropriate metric is difficult.  In our opinion, the TEF still does not measure the value of teaching.

It is also unclear whether the OfS understands the diversity of the student experience fully, and whether its efforts are focussed in a way which allow it to consider value for money for the breadth of students in the sector. Please see the comments about its engagement with students elsewhere in this response.


The language of “poor quality courses” is not helpful in this area.  The OfS appears to have a utilitarian view of value for money for students which should be one component of a broader articulation of the positives of education. The current approach to investigations – where little information is made available on the focus or structure of an investigation as a result of which no effort can be made to deliver a swift improvement for students- does not support a transparent approach to regulation or to securing value for money for students. It is difficult to see how value for money could be transparent in such a structure.

How can value for money be measured?

The value of a degree could be seen to be a mix of academic expertise, excellent teaching and feedback, the development of transferable skills through curricula and non-curricula activities, careers support and job opportunities, cultural capital and institutional reputation. 

Looked at this way, there can be no single objective way to fairly assess value for money for all subject areas and institutions in a way that produced data that could be considered and relied on without context. It would be better to be clear what has been assessed, and how, and to put that into the context of other figures, such as how far the sum offered as a student loan for fees and for living expenses can realistically cover likely outgoings.


In the scheme of things, therefore, some of the OfS elements have a place. For example, destination and salary data may suggest that attending a particular institution or studying a particular subject is good value, but clearly that may not be an option for every applicant.  Tuition fees could also be considered good value as they have not increased substantially since 2012, despite an annual average inflation rate of around 3.8% since then that has seen other prices increase by over 50% over that period.

In our view, any assessment of value for money ought to capture the value of the lived student experience – what were your expectations – are they being fulfilled – what did you learn/gain and value most from your time spent at university – which might best be gathered from actual discussions with students and alumni. It could extend to employers – what did those graduates bring to the work place?

Question 6: 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?

Engagement is not comprehensive, transparent or effective

The OfS’ engagement with students does not appear to be particularly comprehensive. For example, its Student Panel appears to be weighted heavily with students from ‘standard’ institutions, ignoring those at the many alternative and specialist institutions it regulates. The proposal for a National Student Survey for PGT students seems to have disappeared.  Much of the focus seems to be on full time undergraduate students even though the B registration conditions apply across all levels and modes of study. 

The OfS’s engagement with students also lacks transparency. The work of the OfS Student Panel in representing student views and to challenge the OfS to develop policy in the interest of all students is not transparent or visible – there is a section on the OfS website but regular updates or communications on the work of the Student Panel or what they have achieved are non-existent.  As a result it is difficult see what impact it has had on the OfS ways of working. 

The OfS may also see their engagement with students through the National Student Survey, which they fund, but this coupled with the Student Panel does not go far enough.  It is simply not clear how the OfS asks students about the issues which tax them, or their requirements, their interests or what they are endeavouring to achieve from the higher education experience.

The OfS’s engagement is not particularly effective. For example, the guidance and timelines around the development of the TEF student submissions were not helpful. The submission was required to be submitted shortly after sabbatical officers rotated meaning that it was prepared by officers new to the role and unable to do the submission justice. In addition, some students’ unions, particularly smaller ones, found the guidance insufficiently clear and focused to be able to respond in the best possible way.

One of the reasons the QAA is stepping away from the being the DQB is that the work they undertake in England, on behalf of the OfS, is no longer compliant with European Standards and Guidelines (ESG) as monitored by the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR).  The contributing factors to this include:

“A. the lack of students on the review panels for Quality and Standards Review (QSR), Quality and Standards Review Monitoring and Intervention (QSRMI) and New Degree Awarding Powers Test (New DAP’s Test), and

B. the lack of publication of review reports for external QA reviews carried out in England for QSRMI and DAP.

Assuring quality and standards, leading to an award that holds its value, is a statutory duty of the OfS and is at the heart of the student experience.  Students need to be and should be included in this critical aspect of the regulatory framework.   Engagement with students is standard international practice for quality bodies as part of quality reviews and that this is not OfS standard practice shows that the student voice and the interests of students are not being represented by the regulator.

A better route to student engagement

For all these reasons, it is unclear to stakeholders exactly how the OfS takes into account student views in the areas in which it regulates. The OfS’s approach is to assume that institutions similarly do not engage with students to elicit views about what matters to them.  On the contrary however, in many institutions, students and students’ unions are partners in all work.  They are co-designers of student-facing services, providers of much of the co-curricular offer and resources, custodians of an extensive student representation system and a source of both challenge and support in key decisions about their institution.  They are co-creators of learning with staff. The impact of this successful partnership is evidenced in a wide range of co-created improvements and innovations and the development of a real sense of community and shared enterprise within many institutions.  The OfS should look at sector best-practice in respect of co-creation with students and with a view to implementing similar within their own work. 

Question 7: 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?

The OfS approach to working with the sector and individual providers is insufficiently collaborative, in a way that disregards sector expertise. Its regulatory approach is weighted much more to the robust challenge end of the regulatory spectrum with limited collaboration and collegiality apparent, despite regularly acknowledging the world-leading status of the sector.  We accept that a regulator needs to be independent of the sector it regulates. The sector is not against regulation. However, at present the OfS seems uninterested in genuinely listening to the views of the sector or of understanding the sector’s perspectives. As a mature sector, it is very possible to have a regulator that engages appropriately with the sector whilst remaining independent.


There are four principal areas of concern:


Despite their length, frequency and detail, OfS consultations feel perfunctory – final versions of most proposals are indistinguishable from the initial consultation piece, with sector feedback almost wholly ignored. Conditions on quality and standards and TEF were implemented with little change from the original consultation documents, even though sector feedback overwhelmingly did not align with what was being proposed.

The recent consultation on the NSS is another example of where the balance is not struck appropriately, given that 90% of respondents asked for the ‘overall’ question to be retained but it was still removed, without any credible explanation of why retaining it would prevent or hinder the OfS’s performance of its regulatory function.


Consultation responses from the OfS are often quite defensive and negative to any concerns or suggestions raised by the sector. The regulator is not working collaboratively with the sector, but rather is making judgements without recognizing the expertise of those operating in that space. This lack of engagement further leads to the impression of an arm’s length body overly influenced by the initial views of government as opposed to one seeking to be an independent organisation.

Understanding of the sector

The OfS is clear that it is a Regulator and to be effective in this regulatory role their relationship with higher education providers must be different to that which we had with the former Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).  Under HEFCE, institutions had regional contacts with whom they could raise any queries they had about policy and its application. HEFCE regional contacts could assess how institutions were performing against their own strategy and how it aligned to Government’s aims at their annual visit; they had oversight of all institutions in their areas and could spot trends, highlight opportunities for collaboration and sharing of best practice ultimately for the benefit of students. 

By contrast, OfS operates as a remote regulator making sure institutions comply with a suite of minimum standards, often to the detriment of all institutions achieving their own highest standards. A good example of this is in the area of quality and standards. Institutions’ internal quality processes have developed over decades to contribute to quality enhancement as well as assurance. The OfS has been clear that it has no interest in enhancement and has, through its chief executive’s blog dated 6 December 2022, invited providers to dispense with what it describes as unnecessary “internal burden”.

Communication is limited to email or letters direct to the head of the institution.  OfS has thus been very successful in creating an arms’ length distance between itself as the regulating body and the institutions it regulates. As stated elsewhere in this response, this means that the OfS sometimes does not appear to understand the sector or how to regulate it proportionately, efficiently and effectively to the advantage of the sector and student experience.

Co-operative regulation

There are many ways when collaboration with the HE providers could/would be advantageous, i.e., the development of consultations or regulation, and there is a need for OfS to offer more advice and guidance.  We would welcome a more collaborative, transparent, consultative, and sometimes advisory, approach and relationship with the OfS, with a shared focus on student outcomes which includes opportunities to contribute and share good practice. 

We feel that genuine sector involvement in the design and implementation of regulation for the benefit of students in helping to improve their experiences and outcomes has been lost.  In its place, the OfS may point to the consultations which have been undertaken on various changes to its regulatory framework.  Although the ability to contribute to policy and/or regulatory development through consultations is welcomed, to date the outcomes from most of the consultations have seen few, if any, changes to the original proposals.  There is a view that decisions have already been made (especially if there is press coverage, i.e., consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct), and that feedback on consultations will not have any influence on decision making.  Providers are at the coalface of delivering higher education, research and enterprise, working in partnership with their students, therefore they have a wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise to offer and share with the OfS.  There seems to be a reluctance to utilise this offering, which leads to the perception that the OfS is still struggling to balance with how it upholds its regulatory body responsibilities with how it can usefully work with the HE sector.

Another example of the lack of a co-operative approach to regulation is the asymmetry between the OfS’s expectations on institutions, where it often requests information or input at extremely short notice, but then does not feedback what it has done with it, either for a very long time, or indeed at all. Elsewhere in this submission we have given examples of consultations conducted seemingly urgently, but no action on the responses for many months and of student protection plans that were not approved for years. More routinely, the OfS requests information but provides no response as to whether the information provided was correct, what it was used for and what, if anything, has been done as a result.

Advice and guidance

As stated above, there is a need for the OfS to be more willing to give advice.

There is complexity within some of the OfS processes, communications and consultations and related tasks which require high levels of resource by providers.  Communications can be too legalistic and non-collegiate, especially with established, low-risk providers.  The tenor of the OfS’s communications is very heavily focused on its enforcement powers, which discourages approaches for advice where institutions are confused about requirements or unsure how to deal with an issue. There is thus a climate of fear of retribution for asking simple questions of clarification. An example of this is the regulatory advice on reportable events, which advises institutions that the OfS will be concerned if the institution fails to report or over reports, and that an institution should make its own judgment rather than approaching the OfS for advice.

Question 9: What business models are present in the UK higher education sector? Are these models resilient to the financial risks of the sector, and are universities focusing sufficiently on having a viable business model?

Institutions are strongly focussed on financial sustainability and the ongoing viability of their business model. Strong and effective corporate governance is key to ensuring resilience, with independent Boards of Governors providing effective oversight. The OfS’s financial requirements, alongside other matters such as banking covenants, help to ensure universities remain focused on financial sustainability.


There are however some key areas of challenge:


Fee caps and international recruitment


TRAC data shows that the HE sector does not receive full economic costing on research activities, therefore business models assume the shortfall is covered by teaching and enterprise.  This is not sustainable long term at current rates.

Given that the UK student fee has been capped at £9,250 since 2017 (6 years), that it is set to remain at this level until 2025, and that it has not kept pace with inflation, to cover even the full economic cost of delivering higher education programmes HE providers must finely balance the numbers of UK students, international students and postgraduates.

Growth in international students places additional pressure on student support systems, accommodation, academic, and, as seen during COVID, is dependent upon factors outside of the sector’s control.

There is a view that there may be some over-reliance on international students in UK higher education business models, which could lead to failure should there be a reduction in the numbers of international students. 

It should be noted that the government has just published a revised estimate for the value of the UK’s education exports, which is £24,5bn, up from £23bn in 2019.  This figure includes international students living expenditure and education provided by UK foreign affiliates such as overseas campuses.  Any revision to HE providers business models in respect of international students would have a direct impact on the future value of the UK’s education exports.   

Regulation as a barrier to innovation

At a time when home UG student fees have been significantly eroded by inflation, and institutions are seeking to innovate in education, it is unfortunate that OfS regulation is something of a barrier to innovative provision and partnerships. This is due to the potential risk of negative impacts on key regulatory metrics, which then need to be contextualised and explained to a regulator that keeps emphasizing its power to sanction providers and therefore fuels a fear of enforcement. 

In some cases, institutions decide against innovation in programme delivery or partnership development because the regulatory risk is inversely proportional to the perceived benefits and the resulting burden is too great to carry.  In the apprenticeships area in particular regulation is very constraining – there are too many regulatory cooks in the kitchen, and what should look like innovative and positive ways to develop curriculum are seriously hidebound.


Threats to subject diversity, coverage and widening access

The OfS focus on B3 conditions may require institutions to close programmes with outcomes that are deemed poor by the metrics but that may be producing excellent graduates going into worthwhile jobs that might not be deemed to be graduate level by the OfS metric. This would seem to adversely impact both those types of industry (e.g. charity, performance) and the diversity of subjects offered by institutions, (e.g. performing arts). A focus on outcomes may also discourage institutions from offering places to those with complex needs and so impact on widening participation across the sector.

Question 11: What is the OfS’ tolerance for the failure of higher education providers, and what processes are in place to manage provider failure? Would the failure of a large provider follow a clear regulatory process or is there the potential for political considerations to play a role in such decisions?

Student protection plans

All higher education providers registered with the OfS must have a student protection plan in place.  The student protection plan must be approved by the OfS.  It must be easily available to current and prospective students, and it must be reviewed and refreshed on a regular basis. The plan must address specific risks to the continuation of study for that provider’s students in a proportionate way, i.e., ensuring that existing students can complete their course and continue to access student finance, or transfer to other providers.  Should a provider notify the OfS of a significant course closure or the closure of a campus, then the OfS will work closely with the provider and its students to ensure that the students’ interests continue to be protected through any changes.

Some providers have experienced extreme delays (up to two years) in receiving approval from the OfS when they submit updated plans, meaning that their published information is out of date throughout that period.

Student protection directions

Regulatory condition C4: Student protection directions was implemented on 1 April 2021.  The condition enables the OfS to intervene more quickly and in a targeted way when they consider there to be a material risk that a registered provider may cease the provision of higher education.  A Student Protection Direction would require a provider to have a plan, approved by the OfS, setting out Student Protection Measures (teach out; student transfer; exit awards; information, advice and guidance for students; complaints; refunds and compensation; archiving arrangements) which they would implement plus any further Student Protection Measures specified by the OfS and any other consequential, ancillary or incidental actions the OfS considers reasonably necessary.


As there has been no failure of a large registered provider to date, there is no way of knowing if these systems will work.

There cannot be an assumption that students could be moved to other institutions as this would result in negative financial consequences.  The OfS has been very clear that it is not set up to bail out providers who find themselves in a position of failure.  Its limited interventions during the collapse of GSM in 2019 suggests that it is not certain the OfS would be willing to intervene should a university be on the brink of collapse. It is unclear how interventions from the OFS might work in practice.


With regards to the potential for political considerations to play a role in such decisions, no doubt it would be for the DfE or the Treasury to decide whether to take action and support a bail out of a failing provider.  Further, many of the OfS’s interventions seem political in tone and this creates a risk that decisions on interventions in the context of possible provider failure could be impacted by political considerations as well as regulatory process.

A further difficulty arises not so much from the consequences of individual failures and the reasons for them as the fact that it would be very difficult to control the narrative of the failure, both within the UK and internationally. The failure might be intended to give messages to other institutions about good conduct, but it might well be heard very differently. Whether the failure was due to poor financial management, poor quality and standards etc, the message could easily be heard as one of weakness in UK HE, a major source of revenue. It is control of the message that will matter most, financially as much as politically.


04 April 2023