OfS Annual Review: Don’t mislead students with ‘false and misleading marketing’

There were few surprises in the Office for Students annual review, but the regulator promised to clamp down on unfair recruitment practices

The Office for Students (OfS) has warned universities in its annual review not to use “inducements” and “misleading marketing” to attract students.

Speaking at the launch of the regulator’s 72-page review, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge praised examples of “outstanding higher education provision” and laid out her body’s priorities for the coming years, including tackling what she described as “false and misleading advertising in how universities sell themselves to prospective students”.

Such behaviour risked unrealistic student expectations and disappointment, Ms Dandridge said. In a survey conducted by the OfS for the review, only 38% of students agreed that their course’s tuition fees represented good value for money.

The regulator wants universities to make their websites and marketing materials “accurate and accessible”.

Addressing higher education in England more widely, Ms Dandridge said the sector is “outstanding by many measures” but must readily accept criticism. Justifying the purpose of regulation, Ms Dandridge said: “saying that everything is perfect in every university and college, when it plainly is not, is dishonest and corrosive and, ultimately, will do more damage by undermining trust and confidence”.

Neither unexplained grade inflation nor the injudicious use of unconditional offers serve the interest of current, future or recent students
– Sir Michael Barber, OfS chair

Earlier this month, Times Higher Education reported that an unpublished Universities UK (UUK) report circulated in government had criticised the approach of the OfS. The report, titled The Transition to the Office for Students: the experience of higher education providers, said: “The survey responses suggest that the OfS has adopted a legalistic tone across all communication with institutions, reflecting the adoption of a consumer-regulator approach.” The report said UUK respondents felt “that this was not always helpful in ensuring communication was effective and clear”.

In the review, the OfS said its registration process for higher education providers had “exposed the extent to which some are being over-optimistic in their planning and, in particular, their student number forecasts”.

Radical improvements needed

The watchdog warned that it could not tolerate “‘slow but steady’ improvements”, and wanted to see “radical improvements in progress”, particularly on the issue of access and participation. In this area, the OfS said it wants to see an expansion of contextual offers and attainment gaps closed between white and black students.

Ms Dandridge said still too many in HE think “universities and colleges cannot be expected to compensate for poor schooling and wider social inequalities”. She said contextual offers were fair and deserved greater use.

The report confirmed that the regulator will be conducting its review of university admissions, “which will include consideration of the merits, or otherwise, of models of post-qualification applications”.

In the areas of admissions and degrees, chair of the OfS Sir Michael Barber warned: “Neither unexplained grade inflation nor the injudicious use of unconditional offers serve the interest of current, future or recent students.” Both issues threatened to undermine “credibility and public confidence”, Sir Michael warned.

Elsewhere in the report, the OfS pledged to follow the advice of the independent review of the TEF and monitor the pay of senior staff. Next year, the OfS hopes to publish its student engagement strategy to better explain how it will engage with the customers it regulates on behalf of. It will also set out its “expectations of universities and colleges in preventing and dealing with incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct”.

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