Office for Students warns ‘minority’ letting students down

The higher education regulator in England has published its annual review, warning that some courses fall short of students’ expectations of the higher education

In its annual review of higher education in England, the Office for Students (OfS) has warned “it cannot tolerate the minority of providers that are letting students down” – but refrained from sharing precisely how many currently fall short.

The warning comes as the OfS publishes its evaluation of the 2020-21 academic year – and sets objectives for providers for the coming year.

In her foreword to the review, out-going OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge wrote: “Many providers that we regulate already offer good or outstanding higher education… What we cannot do is tolerate the minority of providers that are letting students down.”

University Business asked the OfS for details of how many higher education providers fall into this latter category, but it declined to comment.

The Office for Students is midway through consulting on quality and standards: the next stage aims to produce minimum baselines for measurable student outcomes.

The minister for higher and further education recently told universities the newly appointed director for access and participation will ask universities to revise their social mobility plans, rewriting recently signed off the five-year strategies. Michelle Donelan said she is instructing the OfS to set new social mobility targets for higher education providers, “refocusing the entire access and participation regime”.

Nobody embarks on a higher education course expecting to find it uninspiring and of poor quality, so that they end up dropping out, or to be unable to find employment afterwards
– Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students

This OfS review is the last written under the auspices of Dandridge, who leaves the regulator next year. It is also the last to include contributions from Chris Millward, who leaves the position of director of fair access and participation in December 2022.

The OfS annual review reveals figures on the scale of regulation and monitoring during the pandemic. During the 2020-21 academic year, the OfS received 19 notifications about poor-quality courses, 33 about assessment or standards, 18 relating to “equality issues”, and 18 complaining a university had fallen short of providing what it promised students. It reportedly “intervened in a number of these cases” and required further action from “some”: UB has approached the OfS for the exact figure, but it declined to comment.

Dandridge’s foreword continued: “Nobody embarks on a higher education course expecting to find it uninspiring and of poor quality, so that they end up dropping out, or to be unable to find employment afterwards.

“Universities and colleges heavily promote the quality of their courses and the employment prospects of their graduates in their marketing; they know how important these are to their students. So courses that offer little to students will have to change, or they will have to close.”

The annual review also notes, with some concern, the rise in first-class honours degrees awarded by universities at the end of the last academic year, following a similar rise in the year before. The OfS postulates this is result of so-called no detriment grading policies adopted by many universities. Universities UK, representing 140 universities in the country, refutes this.

Dandridge said students deserve “degrees that last” and employers need assurance that top-class graduates are suitably high-achieving.
The proportion of first-class honours degrees has more than doubled in the last decade. OfS analysis concludes this rise is “unexplained” and that while “improved teaching and learning have driven some of this increase, it is unlikely that this accounts for it all”.

As part of what it sees as a lessening of academic standards, the OfS recently directed universities to drop assessment marks schemes that do not penalise poor written English.

The Office for Students recently 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 new strategy is expected in “early 2022”.

Read more: Over a quarter of students had no in-person teaching last week

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