Written evidence from the University of Suffolk (WOS0036)

 

Lord Hollick, Chair of the Industry and Regulators Committee, commented:

“As the regulator for higher education in England, the Office for Students has an important role in ensuring our universities and higher education providers are high-quality institutions which serve their students. The Office for Students is a relatively new regulator, having only become fully operational in 2019. However, since then, the way in which it oversees higher education providers has changed. We therefore feel an inquiry to scrutinise its work is both necessary and timely. The focus of our inquiry will be the suitability of the OfS’ remit and its statutory duties, as well as its role in relation to the financial sustainability of the higher education sector.”

 

Questions

  1. 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?

 

The HERA act of 2017 envisaged four primary regulatory objectives which were set out as:

All students, from all backgrounds and with the ability and desire to undertake higher

education:

“1. Are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from higher education.

2. Receive a high-quality academic experience, and their interests are protected while they

study or in the event of provider, campus or course closure.

3. Are able to progress into employment or further study, and their qualifications hold their value over time.

4. Receive value for money.”

 

In our experience in implementing these duties, some of which require clarification, the OfS has created a significantly bureaucratic process which does not serve the interests of students and creates a huge regulatory burden on Universities which more and more requires institutions to divert resources from delivering high-quality educational experience and continuous quality enhancement to responding to numerous demands and consultations from OfS where the regulator has largely ignored sector views.   

While one of the key points in the HERA 2017 act was to safeguard the HEI’s independence, our experience shows that the OfS regulatory approach has been focused on eroding the HEIs independence and dictating what needs to be done. Everything from how Universities admit students to assessing students’ work and, indeed, the content of courses has been interfered with, and with the resignation of QAA as DQB there are serious concerns about OfS expanding its role into areas in which it has very little expertise.

As an institution with the 3rd largest Access and WP students in the country, our experience with the OfS has been of the immense regulatory burden of responding to what seems largely to be a tick box exercise (including numerous writing versions of APP due to change of requirements by OfS and personnel changes at the ministry) diverting University resources from helping our students that require significant mentoring and support. It seems from our experience that OfS concentration over the past year has not been about supporting the students and their journey rather than responding to constantly changing political leadership at ministries and creating more and more of an OFSTED environment for the Universities, which clearly was not the intention of the HERA 2017 act. In our view, there are serious concerns about the independence of the OfS as a regulator and not becoming a tool for an ideological drive to change a world-renowned higher education system that has come a long way in offering high-quality education to many from deprived backgrounds. 

 

  1. How closely does the OfS’ regulatory framework adhere to its statutory duties?

 

The OfS has moved significantly from what the HERA 2017 act intended for the regulator to replace HEFC, expanding its statutory duties through specific interpretation of the four key regulatory objectives and becoming an interfering body eroding Universities’ independence. We agree with the view expressed by UUK that OfS is not implementing a fully risk-based approach, that it is not genuinely independent and that it is failing to meet standards we would expect from the Regulators’ Code.

 

  1. 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?

 

Our experience and observations indicate that the current government heavily influences OfS as a regulator. Everything from appointing its chair or CEO raised questions about the suitability or skills and expertise of the team appointed and their independence from government policies. During the past two years and various changes at the ministerial level, the sector has been witnessing more and more ministerial interference to the level of ordering OfS to carry out various tasks clearly outside OfS responsibility at the time, for example  “Zahawi orders OfS to investigate ‘larger’ universities on quality”; “Government also demands English regulator mount 10-15 on-site inspections checking factors such as the use of online teaching…” source Times Higher Education March 31, 2022.

 

  1. 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?

 

We have very little confidence that the OfS, despite its massive staff expansion, has the expertise that the QAA had following decades of development and closely working with the sector to act as the DQB. We further believe this is not in line with HERA’s vision of having an independent DQB for the sector and, therefore, further complicating the relationship with the regulator.  The framework provided for the TEF and the sector view that TEF does not measure quality but rather outcomes and OfS’s subsequent mainly quantitative approach to measuring the quality of education experience is one key indicator of the level of OfS expertise or indeed understanding of what quality in higher education is all about.

 

We are concerned that both UK and international respect for the work of the QAA which has been active in promoting UK HE, something not seen by the OfS will be lost..  Should the OfS take on the DQB responsibilities it would lead to a loss of independent oversight of quality assurance in England and not meet international standards.

 

 

  1. 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 institutions?

 

This is an area of serious concern for us and the sector. Views expressed by politicians and some officials measuring “value for money” in terms of job outcomes and salary and the press labelling of “Micky mouse courses”, namely attacking art and humanities-based courses and indeed institutions is a serious threat to the healthy diversity required for a high-quality education system in the UK. Taking crude measures such as starting salaries for graduates as a measure would mean that critical courses in health and social work and indeed in many other areas would not fair well as some other subject areas being promoted by some politicians. One hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic in the country and what was required to deal with it would have changed perceptions, but all the indications are that we are back to old “ideological battle lines” which largely ignore the strategic requirements of the UK PLC. 

 

  1. 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?

 

As far as we can tell, our engagement with our student body indicates there is very little meaningful engagement or interaction with students from OfS. The consultation around NSS and the outcome and changes made to the NSS and TEF are good examples of so-called “consultations” and how the Ofs has taken into account, or not, the views of students or providers.

 

  1. 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?

Our relationship with the OfS has certainly been more and more about OfS dictating various requirements at a very unreasonable time frame and without the transparency required for the University to be able to deal with the request. Furthermore, we are very concerned about the considerable increase in data requirements, which burden institutions, especially smaller institutions like ourselves, without any valid or clear indication of what the regulator intends to do with the data.

Not only do we not feel that there is a view about collaborating with Universities at OfS but rather a view that we are out to “catch you” approach, which comes through the tone and language of OfS correspondents and engagement with universities.  It must be noted that during the QAA’s and HEFCE’s time as bodies responsible for the sector, Universities did not have an issue with robust challenges and, where required, rose to the challenge and made appropriate changes. 

It appears that OfS feels unable to introduce transparency to its investigations, to the extent that this undermines effective outcomes. In relation to one of our own recent experiences, we were asked to respond without clarity over the reason or purpose of the exercise. Only in later conversation with government and other agencies did the cause of these concerns become clear. This added considerably to the time and cost burden of our response.

Fundamentally, the regulator underestimates the willingness of institutions to collaborate in addressing concerns relevant to the regulator’s duties.

Furthermore, although OfS appear to ‘consult’ with HEIs, the lack of transparency surrounding the motivation behind OfS’ actions raise concerns when new suggested Conditions of Registrations are proposed. We acknowledge that regulators hold a priviledged position, however, working collaboratively and transparently with HEIs is more likely to ensure that the primary objectives of the HERA Act 2017 are focused upon effectively.

 

  1. 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?

There is significant financial risk present in the higher education system. The fees set in 2011 at £9250 are equivalent to around £6000, given the inflationary pressures over the past decades while Universities have been asked to do more and more (including dealing with issues such as students’ mental health). Existing EU and the policy zig-zags about overseas students and making the UK a hostile destination for International students is definitely damaging to UK higher education and provides significant risks for providers.

As a whole it is acknowledged that the higher education sector - at some financial cost to itself - managed the extreme volatility and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic very well. However, the ongoing risks to the financial health of the sector, including the increasing expectations of students and regulators in terms of services and support, the rapidly increasing regulatory burden and the underlying compounding effects of a sharply dimishing unit of resource for teaching, means that such resilience cannot be taken for granted in future.

Clearly different parts of the sector are under different financial pressures and threats but the recent case of UEA, with 30,000 students and in the top 20 UK institutions, highlighted how fragile the situation is for the sector.

 

 

  1. 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?

 

There are widely different business models across the sector as each institution develops its own plans appropriate to its circumstances. This necessarily leads to different dependencies on various market segments, for example, local vs national recruitment, international vs UK, FE engagement and progression, private provider partnerships, apprenticeships etc. This requires universities to develop risk mitigation plans that address both local and systemic financial risks arising. It is our belief that the regulator should focus on the degree that universities can evidence they are addressing the risks of their own business models, rather than a high level assessment of the risks affecting the sector as a whole.

 

 

  1.                    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?

 

An assessment of the financial sustainability of institutions will significantly depend on an awareness of the risks relevant to their own operating circumstances and the effectiveness of their risk mitigation plans. As outlined in our response to 9. above, such an assessment must be sufficiently well tailored to each institution to be effective. Whilst the regulator claims to have a risk based approach to its work, our experience suggests this is at a very high level and not sufficiently informed by local circumstances or even local risk mitigation plans. This reinforces the impression of a significant gulf between the regulator and institutions, both in terms of objectives and insight. This has led to a regulatory culture which lacks transparency, is burdensome on institutions and ultimately is unlikely to best serve the interests of students.

 

  1.                    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 to failure of a provider is for the regulator to answer.

 

The processes in place to manage such a situation largely revolve around Student Protection Plans, which all registered providers must publish. However, our own experience is that there is little focus on these and no conversations between the regulator and institution over the content or effectiveness of these. It was particularly apparent in our case that the regulator paid little heed to updates made to reflect a change in our local circumstances, and indeed failed to respond to repeated written requests to have it approved.

 

  1.                    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?

 

We agree with UUK findings that fees and grants do not cover the full cost of teaching students in England and, despite the inflation rate, are pegged to a level set in 2012-2013, until at least 2024-25. The £9,250 fee is currently worth only £6,600 in 2012-13 prices, and high inflation will reduce its value further over the next two years. As the chair of  UUK’s funding policy lead pointed out: “overall university funding is forecast to drop to its lowest level in real terms since the 1900s, while graduates are paying more than ever”. The one thing that many viewpoints can agree on is that changes are needed to the current system. It is time to have bold and serious discussions about a solution to this to ensure a high-quality student experience and world-class research.

06 April 2023