The chief executive of the Office for Students, Nicola Dandridge, is to leave the regulator in April 2022, the organisation confirmed today (9 November).
Dandridge is the first chief executive of the OfS, which was created in 2017 by the Higher Education and Research Act. It began its operations on New Year’s Day 2018, replacing the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).
In a letter to the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, and the minister for higher and further education, Michelle Donelan, Ms Dandridge said: “I am enormously proud of all that we have achieved since we were set up in 2018. We have established ourselves as a new regulator for students in a sector that has never been regulated in this way before.”
Her departure will leave open the job that is crucial to the government approach to higher education. Ministers have repeatedly told MPs, vice-chancellors, students and parents that the Office for Students has powers to investigate substandard HE providers and intervene. In autumn 2020, Michelle Donelan reassured the students that Nicola Dandridge’s organisation was monitoring the quality of online teaching.
The responsibilities of the OfS have expanded. Successive ministers have asked the OfS to monitor freedom of speech, unconditional offers, antisemitism, grade inflation, financial sustainability, digital poverty, reportable events, online learning, access and participation and even collect data on the number of students catching Covid-19 while at university.
On the instructions of ministers, the OfS is also overseeing reviews of the National Student Survey, a framework for quality and standards in education, besides much else. It has given universities a year to change their mark schemes to require students to demonstrate proficient written English to get top marks – and a year to urgently review how they handle sexual assault and harassment cases. The OfS is consulting on its new strategy for regulation.
Whoever is appointed to replace Dandridge will have considerable responsibility and opportunity to enact many of the changes ministers seek.
From setting up a brand new regulator, to dealing with the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, Nicola’s experience, diligence and determination has [sic] been key to the success of the OfS
– James Wharton, chair of the Office for Students
There will be much scrutiny of the appointment process after the recent appointment of a Conservative peer to replace out-going OfS chair, Sir Michael Barber. The Labour party at the time called for an inquiry into the selection of James Wharton. The commissioner for public appointments criticised the government for “packing” the panel that oversaw the appointment of Lord Wharton. A panel of vice-chancellors expressed doubts over the political impartiality of the Conservative peer.
Dandridge led the regulator as it began to carve out its role in the higher education landscape. Much of her initial tenure was concerned with overseeing the registration of providers, analysing data returns and monitoring the creation of access and participation plans. Debate in more recent years has turned to how the regulator can act as an effective regulator of teaching and learning.
“We have developed a robust and innovative approach to regulating quality and equality of opportunity, taken decisive action in a number of cases where quality and governance were inadequate, and overseen demonstrable progress on social mobility,” Nicola Dandridge wrote in her letter to Zahawi and Donelan. “We worked closely and effectively with government during the disruption of the pandemic and ensured that there were no disorderly university failures. Our new strategy, on which we are about to consult, is proportionate and informed. I leave a strong team who are well-positioned to take forward its implementation.”
Lord Wharton paid tribute to the outgoing chief executive. “From setting up a brand new regulator, to dealing with the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, Nicola’s experience, diligence and determination has [sic] been key to the success of the OfS,” he said.
He added: “I am grateful for all of her support since I took up the post of OfS chair earlier this year, and on behalf of everyone at the OfS thank her for her enormous contribution. As Nicola leaves, our executive team and the OfS will work to deliver our new strategy.”
Zahawi thanked Dandridge for her work over the last five years and said she would “leave behind her a real legacy”. The recruitment process to find her successor will be announced “in due course”, he added.
Dandridge was the chief executive of Universities UK before her appointment to the OfS. At the time, one newspaper likened her move to the “poacher turned gamekeeper”. Within days of the OfS’s creation, the regulator was thrown into chaos when ministers tried to appoint Toby Young to its board.
Hefce had, since 1992, been responsible for distributing funding for teaching and research to universities. OFFA was established by the Labour government in 2004, with the introduction of variable tuition fees. It could bar universities from charging the then maximum fee level of £3,000 if it found it was not doing enough to widen access and participation for underrepresented groups.