OfS sets minimum thresholds for student outcomes

The Office for Students has suggested introducing minimum thresholds on student progression and outcomes that it would expect higher education courses to meet

The Office for Students (OfS) will use new thresholds of “minimum acceptable” student outcomes to identify poor quality courses in England, it has announced.

The thresholds cover three different metrics: the number of students that continue their course into the second year, the number that complete their qualification and the number that progress into professional employment or further study within 15 months of graduating.

The OfS proposes that 80% of full-time, first-time undergraduates should progress into their second year, 75% should complete their course – and 60% should find suitable jobs or enrol on postgraduate courses after study.

The OfS said providers that fall short of the thresholds “will face tough regulatory action”.

Different metrics apply to full and part-time students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, including teaching qualifications, postgraduate researchers and apprenticeships.

The proposals were set out in a consultation document released on 20 January.

The announcement kickstarts a consultation with the sector that could institute a new regulatory regime. The minister for HE and FE – Michelle Donelan – welcomed the plans, adding: “Our university system is acclaimed as world-class, but there are too many pockets of poor quality.”

We are clear that we are raising our expectations of universities and colleges. Low quality courses which lead to poor outcomes for students are unacceptable
– Nicola Dandridge, Office for Students

The regulator has produced indicative figures for each of the three thresholds and student cohorts. According to the OfS, 36 higher education providers currently fall short of the proposed continuation threshold for first-time, full-time undergraduates, 34 of the proposed completion threshold, and 56 of the progression threshold.

Those that fall short could still be redeemed after an investigation by regulator officials, according to the OfS plan, which leaves open the possibility of making a “downward adjustment” to “starting point values” after considering “relevant contextual factors” about the course, provider and student body. Courses with high proportions of disadvantaged students could, for example, be reappraised on that basis. The OfS says it is prepared to drop thresholds in some cases.

The new thresholds will, it is hoped, strengthen the regulator’s hand in litigation with providers it considers to be failing.

It appears, though, that relatively few providers will fall foul of this new regime, which the chief executive of the OfS described as a “landmark moment in our work to tackle poor quality provision in English higher education”.

The consultation is one of three launched simultaneously: the other two relate to the future of the OfS’s Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF).

The OfS consultation states: “We propose to set a ‘starting point value’ representing the level of performance at which we consider we would not need to intervene to protect students. We will use anonymised data on the sector’s historical performance, including sector distributions and averages (weighted and unweighted), to identify this point. We would not generally expect this point to be higher than the sector average performance.”

The consultation document continues: “After identifying a starting point value, we would consider data that shows the historical variation in performance for students with different characteristics, including combinations of characteristics. We propose making a downward adjustment if this data shows a marked difference in the outcomes of different groups of students. This will allow us to identify the point at which we would not need to intervene, having taken into account the impact of contextual factors we can observe in sector-level data.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “Many universities and colleges in England run high quality courses that deliver positive outcomes for students. The thresholds that we have proposed will not affect them. They are instead designed to target those poor quality courses and outcomes which are letting students down and don’t reflect students’ ambition and effort. 

“Alongside the thresholds, we are providing detailed information to universities and colleges that will enable them to assess their own performance, and to make improvements where quality is low – whether that is across the board, or for particular groups of students, or in certain subjects. But we are clear that we are raising our expectations of universities and colleges. Low quality courses which lead to poor outcomes for students are unacceptable, and we are determined to take action where students are recruited onto courses which offer few tangible benefits.”

The proposals would, she predicted, “generate significant debate”, adding: “We are especially keen to hear from students and their representatives, who have an important stake in the success of this work.”

Ms Donelan, said: “Students deserve an education that will help them achieve their dreams, so we need to crack down on those universities that are not delivering this ambition. Our university system is acclaimed as world class, but there are too many pockets of poor quality.  

“Through this tough regulatory action, we are protecting students from being let down by these institutions, whilst also ensuring those delivering outstanding teaching are properly recognised.  

“Whether it is giving students the face-to-face teaching they deserve or ensuring universities tackle drop-out rates and poor graduate outcomes, this government will always fight for a fair deal for students.” 

Gordon McKenzie, CEO of GuildHE, said: “We welcome the OfS clarification that they will not be creating baselines around salary data and the fact they have listened to sector feedback and confirmed they will delay indicators for trans-national education (TNE) students until the appropriate data exists and have recognised the challenge that small datasets in some providers creates for making fair judgements.

“We also welcome their recognition of the need for contextual factors to be considered alongside the numerical baselines, particularly when it comes to student outcomes and  the very real differences in labour market opportunities in different parts of the country. How these judgments are made in practice will be critical and we look forward to seeing more detail from the OfS.”

McKenzie said his members would welcome the changes to the TEF, particularly “the renewed commitment to student engagement through the new student submission and the weight given to the provider narrative in generating other evidence to support the analysis of provider excellence”.

The University and College Union condemned the proposals. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “‘The latest proposals to tackle so-called ‘poor quality courses’ by the Office for Students will harm the very students they are ostensibly designed to help.

“Not only will the thresholds damage courses which play an important role in widening participation, but there is a real risk that universities, aiming to avoid sanctions, will simply stop admitting students who they deem unlikely to progress. This amounts to the stealth introduction of de facto minimum entry criteria.”

She suggested that the “proposals read like they were written to appease ministers committed to aggressively marketising the sector, rather than to address the real issues affecting course quality”. 

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