‘Rip-off degrees’ not language I would use, says OfS chief

Susan Lapworth tells business school deans that regulator has learned lessons from first investigations into quality of their provision

November 13, 2023
Susan Lapworth
Source: OfS

The next round of investigations into the quality of business and management courses in England will be “more transparent”, the head of the Office for Students (OfS) has promised, as she distanced herself from politicians’ comments about “rip-off degrees”.

Susan Lapworth told the Chartered Association of Business Schools’ (CABS) conference that the regulator would be more open about the assessment process and said there was an ongoing “learning conversation” taking place, as she understood that those involved “will have lots of feedback about how it went and how it felt”.

The regulator has been criticised by vice-chancellors for a lack of communication and transparency after it published its first three assessment reports, which identified areas of concern at the University of Bolton but cleared London South Bank University and the University of East London.

Business and management courses will continue to be the focus for the OfS in the coming year, and Ms Lapworth said the regulator was aiming “to provide as much information as we can about the approach we are taking about how a typical case might unfold” to ensure that the process “feels more familiar to everybody”.

She told the audience of business school deans that their area had not been singled out for “arbitrary reasons” but because it had the widest range of performance in student outcome measures and tended to have large – and rising – student populations.

Ms Lapworth said that it would be a “disservice to you and your students if we didn’t identify and address concerns about quality” and that the regulator’s actions could protect the reputation of the subject area as a whole.

The reports published so far reflected the deliberation of the OfS’ panel of expert academics, Ms Lapworth said, which “should give you confidence in the process and in the judgements those teams are reaching”.

“We do appreciate this can feel difficult for colleagues in the spotlight, particularly given it is a new way of working,” she added.

Addressing the critical House of Lords report into her organisation, Ms Lapworth said the OfS would respond “formally later this month” while explaining that the reports was being used “as a learning tool for the next phase of our development as a regulator”.

“While we won’t agree with everything it says, we do understand that students and institutions and sector representatives are looking for a different sort of relationship with us,” she added, and the OfS was seeking a “much richer two-way dialogue” with universities.

One area in which the regulator was seeking collaboration was understanding the scale of the financial challenges facing institutions, Ms Lapworth said, after the Lords report criticised the OfS for being “nonchalant” in the face of a funding crisis.

Addressing another key concern, that the regulator is too close to politicians – some of whom have called out “rip-off degrees” offered by universities – Ms Lapworth said this “isn’t language that I would ever use, and no one at the OfS has ever used that language”.

“I can say, hand on heart, that we do our work properly and rigorously and independent from ministers,” she added.

Speaking about the regulator’s fresh focus on franchise provision, she said that although this could be “fantastic” and “create opportunities for students that wouldn’t otherwise exist”, there had been instances where franchised partners had not got a grip on issues such as recruitment, attendance and assessment.

The regulator was in the process of identifying providers where these problems existed and thinking about how it might intervene, she said.

Reacting to the speech, Robert MacIntosh, the chair of CABS, welcomed the change of tone from the regulator.

“I think the way in which the first round of these assessments or investigations was handled was not ideal,” he told Times Higher Education.

“It felt to me that people were called out for something when we weren’t clear what the issues were. That was done in a reasonably public way, and then there has been quite a long delay to get to the point where there is closure on that.”

Professor Macintosh, pro vice-chancellor for the Faculty of Business and Law at Northumbria University, said any hint of poor provision “has a real-time impact on your ability to recruit and retain staff and students” and business schools felt that the OfS should also be looking at other subject areas and types of providers.

“It feels slightly like it is always business in the crossfire,” Professor MacIntosh said. “But we have got much to be proud of. Many of our members are dealing with students who are, by their nature, more difficult to encourage into higher education and face more challenges in staying in higher education. It is, therefore, not a surprise we have issues in this space.

“We would really welcome other types of provision and other types of disciplines sitting alongside us, at least for a comparator, but that might not necessarily flow out of a purely risk-based approach.”


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