Sector leaders urge inquiry into Office for Students’ performance

Concerns over regulator’s independence and sweeping new powers necessitates parliamentary investigation, letter to Robin Walker states

January 16, 2023
Source: iStock

The House of Commons Education Select Committee should initiate an inquiry into the Office for Students given “its continuing imposition” of “unnecessary regulatory burden”, the heads of the UK’s four main higher education mission groups have said.

A letter to the Conservative MP Robin Walker, who chairs the committee in Westminster, has urged him to carry out an “independent and comprehensive assessment of the OfS’ performance” as the English sector enters its fifth year of operation.

Signed by the chief executives of the Russell Group, GuildHE, MillionPlus and University Alliance – Tim Bradshaw, Gordon McKenzie, Rachel Hewett and Vanessa Wilson – the letter hints that the relationship between the regulator and universities has hit a new low.

The OfS has faced criticism for its interventionist approach to higher education regulation, including its introduction of performance benchmarks for continuation, completion and progression. Times Higher Education has revealed plans to increase fees universities have to pay to the regulator by 13 per cent.

“No-one in the sector disputes the need for proportionate, evidence-based regulation to ensure all students have access to high-quality education,” the letter states.

“However, there are growing concerns that the OfS is not implementing a fully risk-based approach, that it is not genuinely independent and that it is failing to meet standards we would expect from the Regulators’ Code.”

The letter says this is the case “in several areas including its continuing imposition of what we believe is unnecessary regulatory burden, which is diverting student funding resource away from universities’ missions to provide a high-quality education for students”.

There is an “absence of mechanisms” for providers to give the regulator “structured feedback” on its performance, the letter continues.

An inquiry was seen as particularly pertinent, according to the four sector leaders, because the OfS was about to take on the role of Designated Quality Body (DQB). The current DQB, the Quality Assurance Agency, will relinquish its powers in March and they will transfer to the OfS on an interim basis, although many believe that this arrangement will become permanent.

The OfS is also about to be handed new powers under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which is nearing its final stages in parliament, including being able to fine providers if they are found to be in breach of their free speech responsibilities.

The inquiry should look at whether the OfS “has succeeded in the role parliament envisaged for it” in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, the letter states. The establishment of the OfS – which took over from the Higher Education Funding Council for England – was one of the key results of the act but the sector leaders believed that it had not yet been sufficiently reviewed.

They said an investigation should also look at whether the regulator “has the confidence of the sector in the way it carries out its regulatory duties, how it has supported students and how it performs relative to standards set out in the Regulators’ Code”.

A spokesperson for the OfS said it was “ensuring through its regulation and investigations that quality and equality of opportunity are at the heart of higher education in England”.

“As an independent regulator, we do so rigorously on behalf of students and taxpayers,” they added. “We are obviously keen to continue to engage with the higher education sector to explain our approach and to hear views about how we might move to an increasingly risk-based system. We are always happy to discuss our work with the Education Select Committee and other select committees as appropriate.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

The Office for Students has so far failed abysmally to provide any benefits whatsoever to Higher Education, it's an annoying and expensive irrelevance, not the force for quality that it was (presumably) intended to be. Time not to 'review' it but to ditch it and redesign from the ground up - let us have something that is fit for purpose: non-political and not driven by bizarre ideology, recognising that there is a lot more to a university education than the size of the pay packet you can hope for after graduation, an impartial arbiter of quality.