Ministers want the Office for Students (OfS) to begin “a significant number of investigations” to “root out poor quality” within its 418 registered providers, targetting underperforming universities over smaller FE providers.
The expectation was set out in a letter from education secretary Nadhim Zahawi and further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan, outlining government priorities for the OfS for the coming year.
Zahawi and Donelan welcomed the regulator’s proposed minimum student outcomes. As a baseline, the OfS suggests that 80% of full-time, first-time undergraduates should progress into their second year, 75% should complete their course, and 60% should gain graduate jobs or enrol on postgraduate courses after study. Those falling short could face fines or deregistration.
“Given the number of providers currently with performance below the proposed numerical thresholds that the OfS is consulting on, we would expect a significant number of investigations to be initiated as a result of the B3 condition in due course,” the cabinet attendees wrote.
Ministers want “larger providers with [a] university title and full-time Level 6 provision” to be the focus of future OfS investigations. FE providers offering level 4 and 5 courses are “undergoing considerable change” and “play an essential role in levelling up the country”, they said. For these reasons, the letter explains, FE providers should not be the focus of the OfS investigations.
Investigations should also focus on courses, such as computer science and law, “with large numbers of students and high variation in outcomes”.
“In each case, investigations should be followed by robust regulatory action if appropriate,” the ministers instructed.
The communique also sets out other priorities for the OfS, including addressing HE cold spots with the expansion of HE provision and enforcing current conditions on free speech in anticipation of the new freedom of speech bill progressing through parliament. The ministers reiterated that improving access and participation and tackling sexual harassment and antisemitism remain priorities.
A separate letter from Zahawi and Donelan details strategic priorities grant spending for 2022/23/, which will rise by 5% to £1,397m from £1,330 million in 2021-22. Of that £56m increase, £32m is for strategically important subjects, particularly STEMM.
The OfS will have £450m capital funding to distribute between 2022-23 and 2024-25, compared with £150m in 2021-22.
Elsewhere, the ministers promised £4m in this financial year to support Ukrainian nationals and Ukrainian-domiciled students and £5m to help universities tackle “emerging priorities”. After losing £20m last year, the Uni Connect programme has another £10m struck from its allocation. Student hardship funds return to their pre-pandemic levels.