The Office for Students: a new higher education regulator for England

January 2018 will see the establishment of the new regulator for higher education in England: the Office for Students.

If one thing is for sure, it is that the OfS won’t mimic the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and its relationship with the sector will be different. In the months ahead, it will be necessary for the OfS to establish itself as a mature, fair and accountable regulator that uses its powers to support students through proportionate regulation and judgement.

It is in all our interests that the OfS is able to establish a lasting regulatory settlement that wins the confidence of students and the public and brings clarity and stability for universities and other providers of higher education. 

Readers of the Department for Education’s consultation on the future regulatory framework, Securing Student Success, may question whether the framework, as proposed, can achieve such a settlement without significant further development and clarification. The tone of the document is, in places, confrontational and appears preoccupied by short-term political concerns rather than the larger long-term task of creating a credible, independent regulator.

The student interest is framed narrowly, often in opposition to institutional interests, rather than reflecting the complex and multifaceted dimensions of students’ relationships with their higher education provider, not least as participants in institutional governance and decision-making. 

It is not clear that the consultation takes account of all of the amendments to the Higher Education and Research Act, for example, on having regard to the benefits of collaboration among providers where it is in the student interest to do so.  

Universities UK is committed to working with the OfS to ensure that the regulatory framework is developed and implemented successfully, but this partnership must be in the spirit of co-regulation and built on the principle of institutional autonomy, not simply institutional subservience to the regulator.

While supporting the OfS, we will question and challenge where necessary. Successful, proportionate and credible co-regulation requires this. 

Of course, it is still early days. There is an opportunity for the OfS, in the early months of its operations, to work with universities, students and other higher education providers to clarify the scope of its remit and set out some short- and medium-term priorities.   

Universities UK’s response to the consultation sets out our views on what those priorities should be. First and foremost, the OfS must protect students and taxpayers, from poor quality, transient or negligent providers that are unwilling or unable to deliver a transformational learning experience.

I would like to see the principles of institutional autonomy and diversity openly embraced in OfS’ policies and practices, as supporting student choice and outcomes. 

Inclusion on the register of providers and the conditions that must be met before a provider can be included will be an important way of establishing a baseline set of expectations for all higher education providers. Once that baseline is set, I do not believe that any new conditions should be imposed for at least two years, to give the system time to bed in.

Before participation in the teaching excellence framework is added as a condition of registration we should await the findings of the promised independent review and the subject-level pilots that are due to begin in 2018. To include it as a condition of registration at this stage would be premature. 

Going forward, the OfS should be clear and transparent about the processes and steps for adding new, general or specific conditions for inclusion on the register of higher education providers. Equally, the sector needs to know how the OfS will arrive at judgements about whether a provider is compliant with the conditions of registration, and how it will use intelligence from the quality and data bodies, and crucially, students.

We also believe that the OfS should recognise the principle of co-regulation in relation to quality and standards in which providers are responsible for safeguarding quality and standards as autonomous institutions. 

Universities UK will work with the OfS to support the reforms on issues such as executive pay, student protections and shared responsibility for oversight of quality and standards. While I do not expect the OfS to lead policy development in higher education, I believe that the OfS can usefully work with the sector to identify emerging issues that affect students and to promote the sharing of good practice.

To best promote the student interest, the OfS should support institutions to enhance their relationships with students. Ultimately, we are all judged, and we judge ourselves, on whether we are able to create the conditions for students to learn, flourish and achieve their aspirations. 

The OfS and the new regulatory framework is the biggest reform to higher education in England since 1992 and, following on the 2012 funding changes, represents a break with the basic model of funding and regulation of the past 100 years. Given the significance of this reform, I believe that it would be appropriate for there to be an independent review of the OfS, commencing in September 2022.

This will help us to review how the Higher Education and Research Act and the OfS is meeting the aspirations of the Act and will help to ensure that it provides a sustainable settlement for the sector long into the future.  

Alistair Jarvis is chief executive of Universities UK.

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