Written evidence from Imperial College (WOS0059)


This submission combines evidence submitted by Imperial College London and the Imperial College Union, the College’s student union.




  1. Imperial College London’s mission is to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society. Imperial is one of the world’s top universities, with a greater proportion of world-leading research than any other UK university.[1] It is the only major UK university to teach exclusively science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses at undergraduate level.  


  1. We believe the Office for Students’ (OfS) regulatory approach should be proportionate and risk-based, with those providers delivering positive outcomes for their students being subject to less regulation. We welcome that the OfS has committed to becoming increasingly risk-based in the way it monitors compliance with conditions of registration and takes enforcement action. However, we believe there could be starker differentiation between the regulator’s approach to high-quality providers who pose less regulatory risk and other higher-risk providers. A genuine risk-based approach to regulatory compliance implemented in the right way will reduce the regulatory burden.


  1. The OfS could be stronger in supporting providers to strive for best practice and achieve beyond the regulatory baseline by shifting its focus from the minimum performance expectations where it is at present. This would represent a regulatory approach that befits the UK’s world-leading HE sector.

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?

  1. Research-intensive universities like Imperial have multiple aspects to their mission, each of which are an essential component of the contribution that we make to UK economy and society. These include education, research, commercialisation of research, and local/regional impact though our role as an anchor institution. The predecessor to the OfS was concerned with all aspects of our mission. The fact that the OfS as our lead regulator is primarily concerned with the student experience, with a consequent focus on education, raises a number of risks when viewed from a ’whole system’ perspective.


  1. Further clarity on the basis for regulatory decision-making would be welcome. For example, it would be helpful for the OfS to indicate the basis for its prioritisation process in relation to the new Quality and Standards conditions, including an indication of the proportion of statistical confidence below the thresholds it will be considering further, alongside contextual information.


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?


  1. In its Strategy 2022-25, the OfS proposed using its funding powers to support small-scale regulatory ‘sandbox’ activities for providers wishing to experiment in course design and delivery in a way that continues to satisfy its statutory requirements. The College welcomed the OfSproposal, however, we have not seen any further guidance since on how the OfS plans to achieve this and what the rules of engagement would be.


  1. The resource implications of regulatory burden should be considered by the OfS, specifically in the context of reducing the duplication of processes with other government agencies, such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), the Higher Educaton Statistics Agency (HESA) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). For example, the main purpose of the OfS Higher Education Students Early Statistics (HESES) return is to drive teaching funding, however, there is a considerable amount of additional information collected which has no impact on teaching funding and which is duplicated in the HESA student return (e.g. postgraduate research (PGR) student data and domicile breakdowns of students). Burden could be reduced by rationalising the HESES return so that it only collects information necessary to the attribution of teaching funding. If the OfS has a genuine need to receive certain duplicative information that providers have already submitted to another regulatory body (and it cannot receive it directly from the regulatory body in question), then we strongly recommend that the OfS accepts the information in the same format in which it has been provided to the other regulatory body rather than requiring a re-formatted submission.


  1. We also recommend that the government agencies referenced above give greater consideration to the implications of requests and decisions for other interconnected processes and metrics. For example, data returns on ethnicity of overseas students not being returned through HESA, and the impact this would have on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and other OfS metrics which use these characteristic breakdowns.

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?

  1. Further clarity would be welcomed on how the OfS will support substantial policy changes affecting the education system, such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE). As universities are encouraged to provide different types of programmes moving forward, it is important that the experiences of postgraduate taught (PGT) and PGR students are also evident in the OfS’ regulatory approach, particularly in the context of exploring more diverse provision in line with the government’s approach to delivering its new LLE.


  1.         Whilst the focus on graduates contributing to local and national prosperity is welcomed in the OfS’ Strategy, the role that international students and graduates play in enhancing the UK’s global influence currently is not. This should be acknowledged in the work of the OfS.


  1.         Given the anticipated expanded role of the OfS in relation to Freedom of Speech, we would welcome further information and consultation as to how the OfS will handle these new responsibilities.

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?

  1.         The de-designation of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) does not currently impact upon existing providers, since the OfS has moved substantially away from the process-based quality assurance that was the dominant model under is predecessor the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and QAA towards regulation of quality by results (e.g. the B3 condition, which is data driven). We believe the QAA continues to offer often valuable guidance to HEPs on a discretionary basis and consider that this is the appropriate role for it going forward. The Committee might want to consider, however, that there is an international dimension to this change as English Higher Education (HE) might be seen as no longer independently quality-assured in a way that is compliant with international norms and good practice going forward. There is a possibility that this could lead to international stakeholders viewing English HE as a less attractive prospect for collaboration and destination for students.

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?

  1.         We consider that return on investment is a key indicator of value for money, and we closely monitor the salary data for our graduates from the HESA Graduate Outcomes survey and the Department for Education (DfE) Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset. In this, we recognise the value of STEM graduates entering public service, for example as teachers.

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?

  1.         The OfS has charted out its objectives on regulating higher education through direct engagement and communication with students, including through its Student Engagement Strategy 2020-2023 and its Student Engagement Priorities for 2022-2023. For student representatives, that has meant direct and indirect interactions with OfS staff members and specialists throughout 2022-2023 on several aspects of regulating higher education, particularly in areas where new regulatory mechanisms were being explored through student participation such as the TEF student submission, regulating sexual misconduct on campuses, freedom of speech concerns and duties imposed on student unions (SUs). Most of this engagement, in our experience, has been facilitated through online workshops, webinars, briefings, consultations and the OfS receiving responses on emerging issues.


  1.         Imperial College Union welcomes the OfS opening up major consultations to all SUs (including those that are not NUS-affiliated) as this allows student representatives to choose whether to engage based on topical concerns and specific cases on their campus/university. Overall, Imperial College Union believes if the OfS bases its policies and regulatory oversight on engagements with all SUs, it would foster increased democratic participation. The breadth of concerns where students have been directly or indirectly engaged or represented at the OfS seems to have widened since 2020. Communications to students on how the OfS seeks to regulate and how to participate in consultations have also seen significant improvement. However, the quality of guidance provided for participating in student consultations could be improved. Student engagement can seem like a late consideration and templates provided for crucial but new means of engagement, like the TEF student submission, would benefit from improvement. For TEF, for example, the timeline for the final submission and events was short and guidance documents were provided later than ideal – this impacted negatively on SU ability to maximise resources and planning. The monthly drop-in sessions the OfS ran were beneficial.


  1.         On the issue of Freedom of Speech, additional consultation with student representatives would have been beneficial to student engagement in devising the new legislation currently going through Parliament, given the scope of proposed duties on SUs.

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?

  1.         During the Covid-19 pandemic, the OfS engaged with providers (sometimes duplicating correspondence from the DfE and other bodies), particularly to check how institutions were handling the delivery of teaching and assessment during lockdown. This led to helpful dialogue between Imperial and the OfS which we would like to sustain. We regret the demise of the network of regional consultants which the OfS’ predecessor maintained. These roles provided a valuable conduit of information and, crucially, understanding between the regulator and the sector. We welcome recent developments at the OfS which have increased collaboration but believe that there is still more that could be done. The College is supportive of a Link Officer within the OfS, including frequent Link Officer visits to providers and (virtual) roundtables to discuss specific regulatory matters. We believe this would enhance the relationship between the College and the regulator and improve understanding of the context in which regulatory decisions are being made.


  1.         We welcome the OfS engaging with the sector via consultation processes, however, we recommend that the OfS considers the timing of consultation requests to encourage a higher response rate. Unfortunately, a number of consultations have been conducted at times where it has been difficult to prioritise responding due to significant workload pressures, for example at the beginning of the academic year, when finalising data returns or during the summer months when College Committees that would need to consider these matters were not meeting. It would be helpful if consultation deadlines were of a long enough duration to ensure appropriate internal consultation can be conducted and responses submitted via the necessary internal procedures, particularly given that recent consultation documents have been of significant length.


  1.         Often consultations appear to be used to inform providers of future regulatory changes rather than allowing providers to contribute to regulation, which can be disappointing and discourage future consultation submissions (especially when providers have invested a significant amount of time and resource into providing a response).

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?

  1.         Research-intensive universities like Imperial provide skilled graduates and lifelong learning opportunities - 97% of Imperial graduates are in employment fifteen months after graduation.[2] The cost of delivering an Imperial undergraduate degree to a Home student exceeds the tuition fee income in every case, with an average deficit of c.£4,100 per student. Significant cross-subsidy from international students is needed to support home students and research at Imperial and across the UK HE sector which carries a structural risk to the UK science base.


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?


  1.         World-leading STEM research and education is resource-intensive and both are funded at loss-making levels by the government. This limits options for universities with a reliance on overseas tuition income common across the sector. Whilst we are proactively generating other income, such as commercialisation, philanthropy and industry-funded research, and these important to our mission, they are unable to deliver surpluses at the scale required to subsidise publicly-funded education and research.

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?


  1.         The financial sustainability of research-intensive providers is overwhelmingly determined by government policy in relation to funding of research and the level of tuition fees and teaching grants. Consideration should be given whether the expectation of structural cross-subsidies from UKRI is consistent with expected future market conditions in student recruitment and the OfS’ understandable emphasis on value for money for students.


  1.         Given the reliance on overseas tuition income as noted above, government policy on visas and immigration can have a significant impact on the financial sustainability of providers.


17 April 2023




[1] Research Excellence Framework 2021 

[2] Higher Education Statistics Agency - Graduate Outcomes Statistics 2019/20, HESA, 2022