Take robust measures to tackle low-quality teaching, minister tells regulator

The Office for Students should strip low-quality universities of their degree-awarding powers and impose fines

Universities in England should lose degree-awarding powers or incur immediate fines if teaching quality falls short of new universal minimum standards, the government has said.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday wrote to the out-going chair of the Office for Students, Sir Michael Barber, and his successor, James Wharton, to set out regulatory priorities for the watchdog 2021/22.

Mr Williamson said he supports the imposition of “universal minimum standards” for higher education provision, so that “every student, regardless of background” can expect an education “that is likely to improve their prospects in life”.

The minister said he wanted the regulator of universities in England to take a firmer approach to “low-quality” providers.

Mr Williamson said: “The OfS should not limit itself to putting in place conditions of registration requiring improvement plans for providers who do not demonstrate high-quality and robust outcomes but should move immediately to more robust measures, including monetary penalties, the revocation of degree awarding powers in subjects of concern, suspending aspects of a provider’s registration or, ultimately, deregistration.”

With the OfS to determine these standards shortly, Mr Williamson said a metric for success include graduate employment and average earnings, adding “these standards are likely to take account of, though not be confined to, quantitative measures, including measures relating to student outcomes”.

The OfS should not limit itself to putting in place conditions of registration requiring improvement plans for providers who do not demonstrate high quality and robust outcomes but should move immediately to more robust measures, including monetary penalties
Gavin Williamson, education secretary

The letter set out several other priorities for the newly-confirmed OfS chair James Wharton to focus attention, including reducing regulation on “high-quality providers”.

“In my view, to date, the OfS has not been sufficiently risk-based,” Mr Williamson said as he urged the regulator to complete “significant, meaningful and observable reductions in the regulatory burden upon high-quality providers within the next 12 months”. The regulator is also to develop ways to monitor modular and flexible higher education provision, in line with the Department for Education’s response to the Augar review, which promises to expand and transform these modes of study in English universities.

Lord Wharton is also to oversee the OfS review of the National Student Survey, launched in autumn 2020. Mr Williamson expressed his judgment that the review is “genuinely radical” and asked James Wharton to “ensure that a replacement does not contribute to the reduction in rigour and standards”. Regarding the new minimum standards for teaching, the education secretary reiterated that the reformed NSS “should play at most a minimal role in baseline quality regulation”.

The minister continued to criticise perceived inaction on the part of the regulator to tackle “potential breaches of the registration conditions relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom, despite a significant number of concerning incidents reported”.

Mr Williamson – who is to publish a new policy paper on freedom of speech in higher education soon – said he hoped to see “more active and visible action to challenge concerning incidents”. Some commentators have criticised incidences that, they argue, restrict freedom of speech on campus, including “no-platforming” high-profile speakers.

The minister does not, however, mention these student-related issues. Mr Williamson told the OfS to protect academics who teach “authors or texts that add rigour and stretch to a course”, free from interference from “university administrators and heads of faculty”.

Universities should not change curriculums “for ideological reasons”, nor to “conform to the perceived desires of students”, he added.

In October 2020, Mr Williamson said he found it “frankly disturbing” that few universities had adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. In his letter to the OfS today, he noted that 31 universities had adopted the definition since October – and urged the OfS to “undertake a scoping exercise to identify providers which are reluctant to adopt the definition and consider introducing mandatory reporting of antisemitic incident numbers by providers”.

The education secretary also wants the OfS to levy fines against universities who do not take a firm line on antisemitism.

“If antisemitic incidents do occur at a provider, the OfS should consider if it is relevant in a particular case whether the provider has adopted the definition when considering what sanctions, including monetary penalties, would be appropriate to apply,” he added.

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