Written evidence from the University of Plymouth, (UoP) (WOS0026)

This paper is being submitted by Professor Judith Petts, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Plymouth (UoP). The University is an independent Higher Education Corporation established under the terms of the Education Reform Act 1988. UoP are also an exempt charity under the terms of the Charities Act 2011.  We are regulated by the Office for Students and have been invited to respond to this inquiry.

Please find our responses to the 12 questions noted below.


Are the OfS’ statutory duties clear and appropriate? How successful has the OfS been in performing these duties, and have some duties been prioritised over others?


Yes - the OfS’ statutory duties, as detailed in HERA (2017) are clear and appropriate.


However, the OfS’ success in performing these duties has been mixed. This is in part a consequence of an incremental approach to growing operations since establishment. But this incremental approach has extended beyond what might reasonably be considered a start-up period.  In our view it is also partly a consequence of the organisation’s apparent willingness to prioritise some duties over others according to government directive.



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?


There is alignment between the regulatory framework and the OfS’ statutory duties, but as new conditions of registration have emerged, it is not always clear that they are being guided or informed by the statutory duties. For example, condition of registration B5 requires institutions to keep copies of all assessed work for 5 years after the end date of a course. We, and many others in the sector regard this as a disproportionate length of time which can be complex and costly considering that assessed work can be everything from an essay, to a set of data, to a large piece of art work or even a robot.


The framework itself is best described as an iterative document given that about a third of the 25 ongoing conditions of registration applicable to providers have been revised since the establishment of the OfS.  Providers are consulted by the OfS prior to change, however the large number and coincidence of these consultation requests brings additional bureaucratic burden (one of the features of regulatory work that the OfS constantly says it wants to eliminate). While consultation is of course welcomed, it is not clear that OfS are open to the views expressed in consultation responses. For example, in a consultation on the future of the National Student Survey, 90% of consultees supported the notion of keeping the current “overall satisfaction” question in the survey; this view was rejected by OfS.  



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?


No – the right balance between providing guidance and maintaining regulatory independence has not been achieved.  There have been a number of instances where decisions taken by the OfS appear to be driven directly by the DfE and its policies. We note of course that the OfS has a general duty to have regard to guidance given to it by the Secretary of State. It is not clear, however, whether the OfS has at any time attempted to advise the Secretary of State, mediate or even reject guidance that it finds inconsistent with the autonomy of English HEIs, or whether the OfS interprets “due regard” as meaning it has no choice but to follow all guidance from the Secretary of State.



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


Yes, the OfS has sufficient powers. The powers given to the OfS are commensurate with their duties and there are clear examples of these powers being exercised e.g., recent investigations into grade inflation.


Yes, we believe the OfS has adequate resources. Not least given the recent 13% increase in provider fees charged by OfS.


No - the OfS does not have sufficient expertise to meet its duties in particular in taking on the role as Designated Quality Body. For example, the OfS must recruit external expertise to assess the Teaching Excellent Framework. It is therefore clear that the OfS does not have the requisite expertise to act as a DQB. If the DQB is to remain within the OfS (we would argue against this as it represents a conflict of interest) then considerable additional expertise will be required in order to assess standards.


Including DQB responsibilities within the OfS remit is contrary to the implicit independence of the DQB from the OfS’ regulatory remit, as contained in the regulatory framework.


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’ KPM 9 (Value for Money) uses a set of measures, including student surveys (in 2022 46% of respondents thought university offers value for money up from 33% in 2021 and 38% in 2020), outcomes data, and responses to questions related to quality in the National Student Survey. 


Significant emphasis is placed by the OfS on the outcomes data relating to continuation, completion and progression with the use of these metrics mirrored in OfS’ regulatory work on outcomes and the Teaching Excellence Framework.


This approach is arguably instrumental and certainly economic in focus -  an approach that is perhaps inevitable given the language used – i.e. axiomatic that a question on value for money will encourage this approach. Universities UK has produced a wider set of suggested measures in its 2022 publication “Framework for Programme Reviews” https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/sites/default/files/field/downloads/2022-01/uuk-framework-for-programme-reviews.pdf


In addition, there are well established subject benchmark statements, supported by quality assurance processes, available to identify the value for money beyond economic parameters. There is plenty of evidence from PSRBs and employers to define this more broadly.



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?

The OfS includes student representatives on its Board, has a student panel and commissions the NSS. It is difficult for us to identify whether the representative mechanisms are effective in representing student voices, and how this engagement drives OfS regulatory activity.




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


This is a largely one-directional relationship and in tone, appears predicated on an OfS view of generalised malfeasance within the sector (which we do not accept). Consultation is extensive but always at short notice and commonly ignored when reaching decisions. Compared to our relationships with other regulatory bodies (PSRBs) in HE, our interactions with OfS are severely lacking.


There is a significant difference between the relationship with the regulator in England compared with that in Wales and Scotland, where more of a partnership approach is taken. This was also the approach taken when HEFCE was the regulator (as well as the funder) in England. From experience, and as evidenced in other regulatory regimes, such an approach comes from confidence and trust. Neither are as yet evident in the relationship between the OfS and English HEIs. A serious question has to be asked as to whether it is acceptable to have such divergence in regulatory approach in the UK HE sector.




What systemic financial risks are present in the higher education sector? Is there the potential for significant provider failures if these risks crystallise, for example through an unexpected reduction in numbers of overseas students or an unexpected increase in pension costs? Are these risks limited to particular groups of providers or are they widespread or systemic in nature?


The financial risks within the sector are widespread and systemic in nature and not limited to a particular group of providers. The risks are largely driven by the freezing of UG home fee levels, together with the long-term under-funding of public research, which together have led multiple institutions to engage in riskier business models in order to generate sufficient surpluses and hence financial headroom to enable investment in modern facilities and student support and teaching. An unexpected reduction in the numbers of overseas students would impact severely on many different institutions.



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?


Universities (and their governing bodies) are focussed on viable business models but are constrained by the freeze on tuition fees for home undergraduate students and the under-funding of public research, which therefore generally requires cross-subsidy within institutions. The sector has to diversify its income sources in order to enable cross-subsidies, creating greater exposure in terms of financial risk. 


How does the OfS oversee the financial sustainability of higher education providers and the higher education sector? Is its approach clear, and is its oversight sufficient to spot potential risks early on and take action accordingly?

The OfS reviews providers’ accounts and via the D conditions.


No – the OfS’ approach to overseeing the financial viability of the sector is not clear and it is not clear to us how they identify potential risks.



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?


The tolerance for failure appears to be high. There are clear processes in place to protect students but beyond that it is not clear what processes are in place to manage provider failure.  It is not clear that the failure of a large provider would follow a clear regulatory process.


The University of Plymouth was the accrediting body for the Greenwich School of Management, a private provider (~3500 students) that went into liquidation in 2018. This was a business rather than quality failure, but it was evident that the management of this required significant intervention by a number of agencies as well as ourselves in order to support and ensure student protection. 


Political considerations are likely to play a role in the decisions made in relation to potential provider failure e.g., where a university is considered an anchor institution playing a significant role in the regional and local community.



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?


The sector’s financial sustainability is entirely dependent on government policy and funding rather than OfS regulation. We believe there is a clear need for policy change in order to ensure the future sustainability of the sector – most pressingly by considering the fee cap for undergraduate home students, and progressing the recommendations of the Nurse review, including recommendations in relation to the costs of end-to-end research  


4 April 2023


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