UUK warns OfS plans for quality and standards risk ‘unnecessary regulatory burden’

The organisation that represents 116 universities in England has responded to the regulator’s plans to monitor how universities teach and support students

Universities UK has published its views on the Office for Students’ plan for regulating quality and standards in higher education, warning it risks “unnecessary regulatory burden” in transnational education, teacher training and degree apprenticeships.

The organisation representing 140 universities in Great Britain and Northern Ireland replied to the OfS consultation on behalf of its members in England that stand to be affected by any regulatory changes.

UUK warned that in areas like teacher training and transnational education, or degree apprenticeships, which are regulated at all levels by Ofsted, the plans risk duplicating existing statutes with “additional layers of OfS regulation”. The regulator’s approach “risks discouraging new partnerships forming, despite the benefits these will bring to current government agendas, such as levelling up, lifelong learning, and the cross-government international education strategy”, UUK argued.

In its latest proposals –  updated from the plans published in November 2020 – the OfS reassured universities it would consider the context of statistics and call upon “appropriate academic experts” to help it assess if a university had fallen short.

Related comment: ‘Universities are restating their commitment to upholding quality and standards’, says UUK

Although UUK “welcomes” the OfS plan, it said the HE regulator had been vague and that “questions remain” over how it will balance context and outside independent opinion into its assessments of quality and standards.

“How will appropriate academic experts be identified, when will they be called on, how will their independence be protected, and what weight will their advice have alongside other evidence? What will OfS consider to be relevant context, and how will this be fairly and consistently applied across different types of provision?” UUK asked.

The OfS seeks to monitor matters like student engagement, access to resources and student to staff ratios, and course “outcomes”, like knowledge, skills, professional competencies and success “beyond university”. It wants universities to “ensure” certain conditions of course provision and outcomes in all cases.

Regulating student outcomes – known as Condition B3 – is subject to an as-yet-separate unpublished consultation, but UUK warns that some results are “not within an institution’s power to ‘ensure’”.

“Context will influence how a ‘successful outcome’ is defined and measured, and may vary across provision types, geographic location, and student groups,” UUK maintained.

While it is important to have a command of the language, it is not for the regulator in a principles-based approach to tell an institution how it should assess a student’s skills or ability
– Universities UK

Another area of consternation is how the OfS seeks to regulate examinations. UUK argued it should not be up to the OfS alone to decide if assessments are “credible”.

“We believe that credibility, defined as reflecting students’ knowledge and skills, should not be solely ‘in the reasonable opinion of the OfS’, but informed by expert academic judgement,” UUK argued.

The OfS plan to condemn university assessments “if students are not penalised for poor technical proficiency in written English” was labelled “an infringement on institutional autonomy”, by UUK.

“While it is important to have a command of the language, it is not for the regulator in a principles-based approach to tell an institution how it should assess a student’s skills or ability, to set marking criteria, or (in effect) to determine that proficiency in the English language should be given priority within the learning outcomes of a course, above other relevant skills,” the UUK response said.

“Some providers have in place additional guidelines for students with Specific Learning Difficulties (such as dyslexia), which means learners are not ‘unduly penalised’ for grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors. These are appropriate adjustments providers may choose to make and should not be judged to be a breach.”

The OfS hopes to have its plans implemented “this autumn” – a timeline UUK gave short shrift. “While we understand the necessity to ensure students are protected from any compromising of academic standards, it is inappropriate to expect staff to have to undergo any form of internal review (and potentially introduce substantive changes) in the middle of an academic session. This would also present problems for students if the ways in which they were expecting to be taught and assessed in 2021-22 undergo a significant change,” it said.

The organisation added that the OfS should instead focus on providers where there are material concerns for quality. “If the OfS already has significant concerns with any provider, they should be acting on these. If they do not, they should permit an institution time to reflect on the new conditions of registration and guidance, and to implement appropriate processes through which their provision will be reviewed – and where necessary, adapted – for the 2022-23 academic year.”

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