Written evidence from the Free Churches Group of England and Wales (WOS0051)


About the Free Churches Group of England and Wales

The Free Churches Group[1] is an ecumenical association of Free Church denominations and Church groups who are engaged in public ministry, enabling member organisations to meet their calling in the public square by providing national chaplaincy support in the fields of healthcare and prisons, and providing support and resources to equip them in their engagement with education in schools, colleges and universities. It was formerly known as the Free Church Federal Council.


The Free Churches have a long history of engagement with and a commitment to state-funded education. Some member churches are actively involved in the provision of higher education in the form of theological colleges, and have a history of involvement in teacher training. We have a Higher Education Working Group that supports Free Church chaplains in higher education, engages with policy issues and encourages member churches to support those who work and study in higher education institutions. The work of the Office for Students has a direct impact on the theological colleges provided by member churches and connects with concerns that are fundamental to Free Church perspectives, particularly around the purposes of education.


As Free Church people we are concerned with the nature of society, with particular commitments to freedom, democracy and to those who are disadvantaged. With that in mind, and with an awareness of the traditions of what it means to be a university, we bring particular understandings of what universities can contribute to the good of individuals and society. The latter is at least as important as the former. Universities are for the pursuit of truth (including speaking truth to power); for the holistic development of individuals, who are more than workers or wage earners; they are for the discerning and pursuit of what is, or might be, good in the body politic and in individual lives. Such concerns rarely, if ever, surface in the ‘advisory’ letters from the Secretary of State to the OfS or in OfS papers. If there is to be a regulator, for it to be adequate to the task, it must work with larger visions of what it is to be a university than the OfS currently does.

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?

(i) Its duties are to protect the interests of students, as consumers, and ‘taxpayers’, as funders. OfS seeks to protect by ensuring value for money for both groups. That there should be a body to protect those groups is reasonable. There are also difficulties enshrined in its statutory duties.

(ii) The OfS statutory duties are clear but the OfS is guilty of significant over-reach.That is well-attested in comments from the sector. One example is in connection with the QAA. It was the will of Parliament that there should be an independent quality body and this role was awarded to QAA. OfS, by ignoring international standards and excluding students from quality assessment, has made it impossible for QAA to continue in this role. 





(iii) The concept of students as consumers is questionable. Education is not a ‘consumable’; it is what happens as students and staff engage together in learning. It is an interaction, dependent on the student as well as the rest of the university of which students are part. It is noteworthy that according to a 2017 UUK report, 47% of students consider themselves customers of their university, compared to 94% who regard themselves as customers of their hotel or bank.[2] The idea that they are consumers is contested amongst students.    


(iv) Determining and,more so, measuring what is ‘value for money’ in higher education is difficult and complex, as OfS itself acknowledges in the Office for Students Value for Money Strategy 2019-2021[3], which says value for money has no fixed definition and ‘means different things to different people and may well shift over time’. The OfS tends to use proxies, suggested by Government, typically whether students go on to higher study, ‘graduate level jobs’ or what salary they are paid through which they can repay their loan, alongside the NSS and TEF. There are inadequacies here. Further comment is made on this area in response to question 5.

(v) The OfS has prioritised the role of universities in preparing students for highly paid careers over the role of universities in promoting social mobility and opportunity to disadvantaged groups. This has significantly penalised those universities which are doing most to provide opportunities for widened access to higher education.


(vi) One of the issues is that within a diverse sector, and one in which competition rather than co-operation is fostered, there is a lack of a united and focussed campaign to address the fundamental problems of a marketised system, of which a consumer regulator is part.

(vii) Universities have many missions, not all directly to do with students, or money.

(viii) The OfS seems to feel it is above the Regulator’s Code: there is no independent appeal mechanism against its decisions, for example on Registration. It is not clear and transparent as to why some providers have been selected for review. It applies its regulations retrospectively, for example B3 conditions.

2. 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?

Parliament intended a 'light touch’ regulator but what has emerged is a high regulatory burden. The burden is equally high for all providers and has required the recruitment of significant extra staff. This is challenging the viability of small and specialist providers, for example theological colleges and, at a time of declining resource, diminishes the number of teaching staff supporting students. The capacity of these small specialist institutions is not equal to that of the larger universities, but the continual requirement to provide data, the purpose of which is in some cases unclear, is a drain on their resources.  OfS does not seem to understand the concept of risk-based monitoring, but instead applies the same requirements to all institutions.

3. 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?


(i) OfS is aligned to Government in various ways and led by an active politician rather than an educationalist. This follows a pattern of diminishing academic involvement in such bodies: UGC was almost entirely academics, HEFCE less so, and the OfS has little academic involvement. It is not the buffer body that Parliament intended. Consequently, there has been considerable erosion of university autonomy.

(ii) Whilst we acknowledge in our response to question 1 that some regulation is appropriate, that must always be ‘light touch’ with universities remaining autonomous. That balance was largely maintained by the funding councils previously. Autonomy is important for various reasons, including to protect academic freedom, to allow universities to pursue truth, however inconvenient truth might be to Government, and to allow universities to be one of the voices within society which might ‘speak truth to power’. As academic communities universities must also be free to develop their academic offer (teaching and research) in consultation with wider society but without being beholden to the political or economic goals of any one government or political party. This will help ensure a broad base of academic subjects is maintained.


(iii) Both legislation and practice must ensure a distance is maintained between the OfS and Government. Ministers should not be over-prescriptive in their letters to the OfS. The sending of such letters must not become too frequent an occurrence. What could be seen as political appointments to key posts within OfS should be avoided.

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?

OfS has sufficient powers and resources, as illustrated by its capacity to absorb the work of other bodies and extend its reach beyond that which was intended by Parliament. Despite this it is notoriously slow in responding to submissions, for example, providers may wait months to receive approval for Access and Participation Plans or Prevent strategies, seriously impairing their effectiveness. A wiser approach would be for the OfS to engage more constructively and in a truly risk-based way with the sector, including by involving more staff with experience of senior management in universities.


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?

(i) Measuring value for money in education is not easy, and certainly not easy if the measuring is done in a limited time after graduation. The ‘value’ part of the equation must be seen in much wider terms than the economic. It must embrace phenomena which are both life-enhancing and difficult to put a price on. A step towards that would be affirming that universities are to contribute to a range of ‘goods’ such as those identified in major reports including Robbins (1963), and the Dearing Review (1997). Once those ‘goods’ are identified it may be more a matter of measuring what steps universities are taking to further such aims, along with qualitative research into the attitudes, commitments and lifestyles of graduates to gain some idea of what sort of impact universities are having. The debate about the purpose of HE and isolating key points is fundamental and necessary to avoid the sector being diminished.

(ii) The NSS does provide data about student perspectives on their university experience and so is one source of material which might be used in evaluation of universities. Determining whether students go on to higher study is relatively easy and may be considered a reasonable option. What might be a graduate level job is less clear. Similarly, using salary levels as a proxy is difficult. Salary levels vary with some doing important jobs paid relatively meagre salaries, and some areas (e.g. creative industries) being hard to get started in. Those who graduate from theological colleges, for example, may go into community-building roles, or poorly-paid yet significant professions such as church ministry or youth work. Clearly, salaries may be the metric which the Treasury would most want to measure, as it represents the return to Government on student loans, and is an aspect of what it would regard as value for money for the taxpayer. This measure therefore has instrinsic difficulties.


(iii) There is a deeper problem, which is an over-emphasis on universities serving the economy. Universities have various functions, primarily educational, not economic. The TEF is one response to that, which may help ameliorate the problems with how ‘value for money’ is measured. However, the vision for higher education enshrined within the statutory duties is primarily individualistic; the good of the individual student. That universities are a public good is given far too little attention. That is inappropriate, damaging to the sector, potentially damaging to democracy, and potentially diminishes the student experience to a narrowly economic one, rather than a more holistic and developmental one in which students become graduates who can engage wisely with others in seeking what is, or might be, good.

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 these interests?

(i) The OfS is very poor at engaging with students. This is not entirely their fault: there was an expectation that there would be significant numbers of students on the Board of the Office for Students, but there are none, only reinforcing the perception that it is the Office for Government. Students need a much greater voice in this regulator, currently they rightly feel that they are ignored.


(ii) It is important that students are engaged in expressing their views on ‘value for money’. It is worth noting that whilst OfS does involve students as part of its processes, students are but one ‘player’, and not as powerful as others. What impact students’ views have on what the OfS actually says and does is not clear; the outcome of student involvement in terms of its impact on OfS reports, regulatory processes etc has not been measured so far.[4]

(iii) OfS has not intervened effectively on the big issues where students have suffered, for example, the cost of living crisis that students are facing, over-recruitment at some popular universities and the consequent lack of student accommodation or lecture hall space.


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?

(i) OfS is widely criticised within the sector for being over-prescriptive, heavy-handed, non-collaborative, and with a creeping mission which means it intervenes in ever more areas of university life, in conflict with the guiding principle of autonomy for higher education institutions. To many, there is a greater emphasis on robust challenge than on collaboration. It is clearly not winning hearts and minds in the sector, and this is a matter of concern


(ii)There has been a failure to understand the importance of a balanced scorecard and an emphasis on the detail of every cell in the B3 conditions. Matters which are best addressed collaboratively and through agreed codes of practice, for example freedom of speech and staff-student relationships, have become subject to regulation with the consequences of unintended outcomes and rapid deprofessionalisation of the workforce. The concentration on these matters, while important if they occur, and the failure to do anything about the cost of living crisis or over-recruitment referred to above and which affect thousands of students is extraordinary, suggesting a regulator not primarily focused on protecting students.


(iii) As we have mentioned above, smaller institutions, including theological colleges, experience OfS’s requirements and interventions as a source of extreme pressure on their limited resources, with no sensitivity towards different contexts and different types of student populations.


(iv) The relationship between OfS and higher education providers does not strike the right balance. Universities should be autonomous, as documents setting out the remit of the OfS make clear.

12. 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 financial sustainability of providers is certainly affected by Government policy and funding. Policy there includes not only higher education policy but, for example, immigration policy. The weight of regulation may also affect financial health, in particular that of smaller institutions, including theological colleges.

06 April 2023





[1] www.freechurches.org.uk


[2] UUK (2017) Education, consumer rights and maintaining trust: what students want from their university, cited in Jones, S (2022) Universities Under Fire

[3] https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/336c258b-d94c-4f15-af0a-42e1be8f66a1/ofs-vfm-strategy.pdf

[4] GuildHE briefing papers on Regulation, Briefing Three, Regulating in the Student Interest, April 2023 (https://mcusercontent.com/b736b238f281eaae80dce598c/files/0d21650b-d17f-78e7-00a4-743aced6e2f2/Regulation_briefing_3.pdf