OfS yet to reach ‘right relationship’ with universities, says former chair

The former chair of the Office for Students said the regulator did not name and shame providers during his tenure in case they “tarred” others with the same brush

Sir Michael Barber, the former chair of the Office for Students (OfS), says governors of universities face a handful of significant governance issues, including higher education regulation, financial stability and freedom of speech.

Sir Michael, who left the higher education regulator earlier this year, said the future approach of the OfS was a “significant” challenge for challenge for university governing boards. He said the sector was still establishing “the right relationship between” the OfS and higher education institutions.

The former OfS chair was speaking on a panel on university governance with Sir Steve Smith, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, organised by the Institute of Directors.

The financial context is going to be very tough for universities in the next three or four years
– Sir Michael Barber

In his three-year tenure at the OfS, Sir Michael said the organisation had grappled with how to intervene in the case of a failing provider. 

“We spent some of the early years beginning to think about [how to intervene], and in a handful of cases actually acting on it,” said Sir Michael. “That will become a bigger challenge for the Office for Students and institutions in the future as they come under financial pressure and the quality of some of the degree programmes they offer gets questioned.” 

Sir Michael continued: “The regulator, the Office for Students, has the capacity and the powers to intervene in institutions or individual courses and programmes and may choose to do that in the future. But what would that look like? When I was chairman, we intervened in some cases where there was financial fragility and in a couple of cases where there was egregious behaviour – corrupt [behaviour], to put it bluntly.

“We had powers, for example, to summon all the emails between the governing council and the chief executive… we never actually exercised that power. But in one case, we threatened it. And that threat was enough to bring the change that we wanted.”

Sir Michael said the OfS had considered whether, in severe cases, to appoint new governing councils and a new vice-chancellor. He added that during his tenure, the regulator had intervened in non-disclosed circumstances of “egregious behaviour” that “we could have quite easily put on the front page of every newspaper and had a story running for maybe five to 10 days”. He said the regulator did not do that for fear of “tar[ring] the entire sector with the brush of a couple of cases”. 

“One thing we’re still learning about as a sector is what is the right relationship between the regulator and the institutions, the regulator and the regulated,” Sir Michael added. The current chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, is to stand down in April 2022. The OfS is seeking views on its next three-year strategy, vowing to be “uncompromising in intervening and imposing robust sanctions” on universities that fall short.

Sir Michael said universities face a reduction of between 10% and 15% in per-student funding, adding: “The financial context is going to be very tough for universities in the next three or four years”.

“Good stewardship and finances is [sic] fundamentally important,” Sir Michael continued, “and governing council members individually and collectively need to make sure they’re on top of that and that the executive team is sharing information that enables good decision-making.”

He recommended governance councils consider splitting investment fifty-fifty between physical facilities and digital resources. He also warned universities needed to do more to ensure “diversity of academic appointments, ensuring you don’t get groupthink in an economics department or political science department”. 

Sir Michael said he did not back a “blanket pay policy” for university board members – but added: “If you want diversity… and you want to encourage younger people and people from more diverse backgrounds, there may well be a strong case for payment of governing council members in certain circumstances”.

Read more: Vice-chancellors must defend ‘diversity of perspective’, says OfS chair

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