Office for Students seeks views on three-year strategy

The HE regulator has vowed to be “uncompromising in intervening and imposing robust sanctions” on universities that fall short

The Office for Students has launched a consultation on its next three-year strategy, with a pledge to ensure quality and standards and equality of opportunity improve within English higher education.

The regulator of higher education institutions (HEIs) in England has vowed to be “uncompromising in intervening and imposing robust sanctions” on “those universities and colleges that are letting students down by providing inadequate teaching and support”.

The chair of the regulator, James Wharton, said he was keen to hear from the sector on its new intentions. The new strategy is expected in “early 2022”.

The OfS began in 2018; its first three-year strategy oversaw the registration of 400 universities and colleges. With that job complete, the regulator says its regulation can become more proportional, easing oversight on providers that satisfy its standards and increasing interventions on those that do not.

The regulator will soon propose minimum standards for higher education providers and its plan for the teaching excellence framework (TEF): both will be critical to its work until 2025, the time covered by its new strategy. Providers that fall short of the new minimum standards will be the focus of OfS intervention – and the next TEF will incentivise those that exceed the threshold to do more.

The current chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, will not be there to implement the new strategy: she recently announced she will step down in April 2022.

The strategy sets out the goals of the regulator. It expects providers to improve students’ knowledge and skills, assess their performance “rigorously”, and award qualifications that are “credible and comparable to those granted previously”. Statistics should demonstrate that providers’ graduates “contribute to local and national prosperity, and the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda”, the OfS adds.

Other goals include ensuring students, staff, and visiting speakers have their free speech protected “within the law”. The OfS says it expects its “investigatory and enforcement activity to increase” after the passage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill, which will make the regulator responsible for ensuring universities promote and protect freedom of speech.

Graduate intake and success should “not be limited by their background, location or characteristics”, the OfS strategy adds. The regulator also has set itself the goal of ensuring students “can choose from a diverse range of courses and providers at any stage of their life, with a wide range of flexible and innovative opportunities”.

The government is trialling its lifelong learning entitlement – and the strategy suggests the OfS will attempt to ensure the realisation of the policy goal on the ground. “We will work with central government to ensure our regulatory approach is appropriate in the context of lifelong loan entitlement,” the OfS strategy notes. This approach will include using OfS funding “to stimulate supply” – and potentially simplifying the route to gaining degree-awarding powers for new providers.

In July, the OfS published details of how it will levy “proportionate and targeted” fines against higher education providers in England that breach its rules – but an accompanying report shows the scale of concern raised by institutions nervous of the regulator’s approach.

The last TEF was published in the summer of 2019. Of the 282 higher education providers who received an accreditation, 28% now have a gold award. In January 2021, the government published the findings of an independent review of the TEF, led by Dame Shirley Pearce, and its response. Dame Shirley suggested the OfS rename the process the Educational Excellence Framework, bin proposals for subject-level awards and focus on increasing awareness of the awards and what they mean among applicants, schools and employers. It also proposes there be four grades of award instead of the current three. The government said at the time it “mostly agrees” with Dame Shirley’s high-level recommendations – but made clear several of her proposals will be shelved.

In September 2021, Universities UK published its views on the OfS plan for regulating quality and standards in higher education by setting minimum baselines, warning it risks “unnecessary regulatory burden” in transnational education, teacher training and degree apprenticeships. Although UUK “welcomes” the overall OfS intention for baselines, it said the HE regulator had been vague in some areas and that “questions remain” over how it will balance context and outside independent opinion into its assessments.

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