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Minimum Thresholds – Are we really protecting students?

  • 26 January 2022
  • By Sally Burtonshaw

This guest blog has been kindly written by Sally Burtonshaw, Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer at London Higher – the representative body for the UK’s largest regional higher education powerhouse. You can find Sally on Twitter at @SallyBurtonshaw.

As the dust begins to settle on the 699 pages of Office for Students’ (OfS) consultations and accompanying documents published on Thursday and providers across the sector begin to draft responses (deadline March 17th), it feels like there is a gaping chasm between the sector and its regulator. Language in the accompanying press release with references to ‘crack downs’, ‘tough regulatory action’ and ‘protecting students from being let down’, jars with a sector which has contributed so much throughout the pandemic. Covid-19 has seen the sector demonstrate the importance of universities’ roles, not only as powerhouses of research and development and teaching, but as civic institutions who are anchored in their local communities, including vital pipelines of support for the NHS.

These latest OfS publications are peppered with painstaking references to having ‘carefully considered’ responses of previous consultations, while setting out how the regulator will not be altering its course to reflect the sector’s concerns. There is a sense in the sector of ‘consultation fatigue’ and an inevitability of implementation, and yet it remains vitally important to continue to articulate why these measures are problematic, not just for universities and their students but for the wider public and for government. At London Higher, we have put together an initial briefing paper for our members, and below I set out five concerns that universities should continue to raise in their consultation responses in order to ensure the consequences of these proposals are heard by the regulator:

  1. Higher Education as a Silver Bullet – higher education is a powerful force for social mobility, as recent research from the Sutton Trust demonstrates. Access and Participation colleagues undertake a huge range of increasingly documented and rigorously evaluated work to support students from underrepresented backgrounds to progress to and succeed in higher education. However, higher education alone cannot overcome the structural inequalities experienced by many potential students. When the consultation asserts that, ‘a provider has a considerable influence over the outcomes students achieve, and that factors beyond its control are not so extensive as to make it impossible to establish a minimum expected level of performance’, it does not reflect either the complex lives that students lead, nor the excellent work across institutions to support these students. Research by the Social Mobility Commission on the ‘long shadow of deprivation’ found that, ‘the greatest inequality is driven by factors outside education’.
  2. The Perils of Risk – The OfS proposes to take a risk-based approach to providers, prioritising those who do not meet the minimum thresholds (although the prioritisation could take a variety of different foci). This may reduce the regulatory burden for some providers but  risks creating a vicious circle, whereby those institutions who undertake the ‘heavy lifting’ of improving social mobility (many of which are found in London) shoulder the greatest regulatory burden. In order to reduce risk and associated regulatory scrutiny, providers are incentivised to reduce their recruitment from those groups who incur the greatest risk; those which their access and participation agenda seeks to support. In doing so, the regulator risks undermining its own commitment to ensure that those from underrepresented groups are able to access higher education.
  3. Transparency – In the face of these quantitative metrics, there remains a glimmer of hope for those institutions who do not meet the ‘minimum thresholds’ set out by the OfS. The idea that the regulator will give, ‘appropriate consideration to contextual factors’, offers the opportunity for providers to demonstrate the value of their provision. Yet the lack of clarity over how this qualitative information will be used and the extent to which it will influence decision making means institutions must wait to see the reality of this process in its first year.
  4. Partnerships – The OfS now considers that, ‘each registered provider holds responsibility for the quality and standards of all of its higher education courses, irrespective of the organisation that delivers them.’ In doing so, it acknowledges that the increased regulatory burden for institutions delivering higher education in partnership with other providers, often in areas of high deprivation, low social mobility and fewer alternative options for students risks inhibiting further partnerships. With ‘levelling up’, a government priority, cutting ties between providers seems to run counter to the rhetoric of direct support for those places so often termed ‘left behind.’
  5. Small Specialist Providers – for all its talk of reducing regulatory burden, there seems to be little regard for the smaller specialist providers, so often discussed as ‘world leading’ in their field, but whose graduates may not progress onto conventional graduate work. Many of these institutions are in London and are integral to upholding the UK’s fast-growing creative and cultural economy, yet do not have the resource for large teams dedicated to digesting and responding to OfS consultations even though their provision is an asset to the sector and their voices deserve to be heard

The timeline for the consultation, implementation and inevitable regulatory actions is fast approaching; the sector will hear the decisions on the proposals currently out for consultation in June, data will be published in September and institutions will be selected in October. Sector voices are as important now as ever in ensuring that the desire to ensure a ‘minimum level of protection’ does not end up damaging the very aspects of provision of which we should be most protective. 

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