Less regulatory burden for ‘well-run’ universities – OfS

The regulator has published new guidance on student complaints and launched three new consultations on reportable events, monetary penalties and the publication of information about its decisions

The Office for Students (OfS) has today (15 December) said that universities which do not pose a risk to students can expect less regulatory burden in future.

New guidance issued today has also set out how the regulator will continue to respond to concerns – known as ‘notifications’ in the regulatory framework – from students, staff at universities and members of the public that a higher education provider may be breaching its registration conditions.

The OfS has also published updated guidance on how it monitors higher education providers’ compliance with ongoing conditions of registration and how it will intervene in the event of a breach.

In addition, three new consultations have been launched: on new reportable events guidance, monetary penalties and the publication of information about its regulatory decisions regarding providers.

In March, as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the OfS suspended some of its regulatory requirements as universities adapted rapidly to the changed environment. The OfS now says it plans a “phased resumption” of those requirements, but seeks to “draw on the experience of the last two years” and focus its work where it is most needed, giving providers that do not pose specific increased risk less regulatory burden.

Students are at the heart of everything we do. Today’s publications are a key part of setting out our regulatory approach for the longer term – Susan Lapworth, OfS

“The OfS has registered over 400 universities and colleges, which all satisfied a range of requirements designed to protect students and ensure they receive a high-quality education,” said Susan Lapworth, director of regulation at the OfS.

“However, it is important that universities and colleges continue to meet these requirements – we are monitoring them on an ongoing basis to ensure this is the case. An important part of this is remaining open to concerns from students, staff and others. We will always carefully assess any concerns that are raised with us and can, where appropriate, investigate and take action.”

“Students are at the heart of everything we do. Today’s publications are a key part of setting out our regulatory approach for the longer term, and delivering on our goal that all students, from all backgrounds, have a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.”

The new OfS guidance outlines a “risk-based approach”, which sees attention focused on universities and colleges that present most risk to students, while “well-run universities that offer high quality courses and deliver successful outcomes for students are likely to experience less regulation”.

The OfS is also seeking views from higher education providers, students and others on three consultations, issued today:

  • Reportable events: Each registered provider is required to report certain events to the OfS, for example matters relating to financial sustainability or the closure of a campus, department or subject area. The OfS is seeking views on the way it defines a ‘reportable event’ in the regulatory framework and on revised guidance to help providers to understand and meet the OfS’s reporting requirements.
  • Approach to monetary penalties: The OfS has the power to impose a fine on a university or college where one of the conditions of its registration has been breached. It may, in particular, do this where it considers it important to incentivise compliance from all universities and colleges. This consultation is on a proposed approach to determining the level of a monetary penalty, including any discount for early settlement, and our approach to the recovery of costs relating to the imposition of sanctions.
  • Approach to publishing information about registered providers: The OfS is required to have regard to the principles of best regulatory practice, including the principles that regulatory activities should be transparent and accountable. This means that it routinely considers whether it would be appropriate to publish information about its regulatory decisions, including information that an individual provider may prefer remained confidential. The regulator is seeking views on a proposed general policy for the publication of information about particular providers and individuals connected with them where that information is relevant to our regulation.

Speaking at a OfS event on 3 December, out-going OfS chair Sir Michael Barber discussed the language the regulator had used in its communications with universities during its first few years.

“We sometimes got that right, but not always. And we work on that all the time,” he reflected, adding that the OfS had, at times, appeared a “little bit tone-deaf.”

“One of the reasons for this event is to put our approach under greater scrutiny,” he said, “because we want to learn how to be continuously better than we’ve been before.”

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