OfS persists with quality thresholds for degrees

The regulator for higher education in England publishes consultation responses and reveals it will announce minimum thresholds in September

The Office for Students has confirmed plans to introduce performance baselines for degrees in England, stipulating how many graduates should pursue “managerial or professional employment, or further study”.

Having published the responses to its consultation on new quality thresholds, the OfS said it will push ahead with its strategy despite “strong disagreement” over some aspects of its plan.

According to the new documents, published on 26 July, the regulator will implement the new rules on 3 October. Three-quarters of consultation respondents oppose the implementation timing.

The OfS says that to meet its new conditions, higher education providers must deliver “positive outcomes”, defined by new thresholds for the percentage of students continuing and completing their studies and progressing into managerial or professional employment or further study.

So-called “split indicators” specify minimum acceptable outcomes for particular groups of students within a cohort, such as mature students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The OfS has previously caveated its approach, maintaining discretion to deem a provider successful if its “context justifies the outcome data”.

The OfS published threshold figures in February – proposing for full-time first undergraduates that 80% continue the course, 75% complete the course and 60% progress into appropriate postgraduate study or employment.

The consultation revealed that “almost two-thirds disagreed with the approach to constructing the student outcomes indicators and almost half disagreed with the approach to setting numerical thresholds”. In response, the regulator said it would delay the formal announcement of official thresholds in September, clarifying that “thresholds will not be higher than those in the consultation”.

The OfS says institutions that fall short of its registration conditions could face fines, improvement notices or ultimately the loss of access to student loan funding or the title of ‘university’.

The announcement also revealed details of the next TEF, the first since 2019 and following the 2021 publication of an independent review by Dame Shirley Pearce. Plans for a ‘requires improvement’ TEF category drew the most vocal opposition from the sector. Submission guidance will be published by the OfS in late September. The submission window will “then open until mid-January 2023, with outcomes published in September 2023”. The OfS also added it “will make further decisions about publication of the data indicators for student outcomes and the TEF in September 2022”.

Jean Arnold, director of quality at the OfS, said: “Our decisions mean that we’re placing students at the heart of our approach to quality. Students at every participating provider will be invited and supported to make a submission to the TEF about their experience.

“And those submissions, together with providers’ submissions and our indicators, will be assessed by a panel in which students are full and active members. We think it’s important that students’ views are always brought to bear on deciding where excellence is found across the sector.”

The government greeted the announcement with support. The minister for skills, further and higher education, Andrea Jenkyns, said: “Courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in and the taxpayer who picks up a substantial portion of the cost.

“From tackling dropout rates and improving graduate outcomes to ensuring students have face-to-face learning, this government is driving up the quality of higher education so that every student has the university experience they deserve.

“Following on from the first wave of OfS inspections, this consultation response is an important next step to halting dead-end courses and ensuring that students and the wider society can continue to benefit from our world-class higher education system.”

Echoing concerns raised in the consultation, the Russell Group revealed it disagreed with some aspects of the OfS approach. Sarah Stevens, director of policy at the Russell Group, said members were “concerned that plans to change the way courses are prioritised for investigation each year will increase the burden on low-risk providers”.

“The plans to take into account absolute values and the increased weighting of the provider submission when assessing a provider’s performance will help ensure TEF awards are more robust. However, the TEF remains a significantly burdensome activity and we are concerned that the implementation timeline does not give the sector enough time to fully engage with the changes announced. With the TEF submission period beginning in September, it’s also vital that the OfS publish detailed guidance to providers as soon as possible.”

In May, interim chief executive of the Office for Students said she accepts the metrics the regulator plans to use to measure quality and standards in higher education are “only part of the picture“. But Susan Lapworth – who will run the regulator until a permanent CEO is appointed next year – defended the metrics as “really essential” to students and taxpayers.

Read more: Over 99% of university speaker events went ahead in England last year – OfS

Related news: MPs critical of DfE and OfS handling of higher education

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