This blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the representative body for more than 40 universities and higher education colleges in London. Diana was previously Policy Adviser to the last three Universities Ministers and you can follow her on Twitter @dianajbeech.
On 26 May 2022, the Office for Students (OfS) announced the first in a series of boots-on-the-ground inspections, which will include on-site visits to higher education providers in England to assess whether they are meeting expected levels of quality and standards.
The investigations, packaged as part of a Government move to drive up standards in higher education, are aimed at tackling poor quality provision, and will see eight larger higher education providers inspected to judge whether they are delivering high- quality teaching in their Business and Management courses specifically.
The OfS has justified its intention to investigate courses in this discipline by describing it as a large subject area where there is significant variation in performance across the sector. It also said it is focusing on larger providers in this first round of investigations ‘because any interventions made to improve quality will have a positive impact on a significant number of students’.
We know that the investigations will cover three of the four new quality conditions announced by the OfS in March to tackle poor quality provision, namely: B1 which ensures that ‘all students receive a high quality academic experience’; B2 which ensures students ‘receive the resources and support they need to succeed on their courses and after graduation’; and B4 which ‘clamps down on grade inflation’.
Yet, information about these conditions is still vague. As such, affected providers will not know what aspect of their performance has triggered these investigations.
While nobody would argue against the regulator investigating poor pockets of higher education provision if there is credible evidence to prove they exist, it is vital that this process is fair and transparent, and the current announcement therefore raises a number of questions that should be of significant concern to the sector:
- While the OfS is consulting on new benchmarks to constitute acceptable performance for continuation, completion and progression under the B3 condition of registration, why have we been given no clarity on what specific thresholds providers need to meet under the B1, B2 and B4 conditions being used to justify these latest interventions? As long as no information about the OfS’s assessment process exists, it appears the transparency duty that the regulator puts on registered providers only works one way, and this latest announcement shows that the Government and the OfS are beginning to find higher education providers guilty of regulatory breaches that have neither been openly defined nor discussed.
- Given the consultation on B3 which generated a good degree of support from the sector, why has there been a rush towards launching these investigations now when the B3 data is due to be released in the autumn? Indeed, the advert for inspectors has not yet closed, meaning the notification of inspections has been issued before the mechanism of inspection has even been developed – assuming of course that the intention of having academic experts involved in the process, as outlined in the B3 consultation, still holds.
- A key basis for the approach listed involves the argument that it is based on as yet undefined thresholds and volume, but what evidence is there that there are not other institutions with similar or greater numbers in other subject areas? If there are some institutions with smaller volume but greater variance from these thresholds, are those students not at even greater risk? The OfS has indicated a desire to undertake 15 investigations this year. Should it not be the data that drive the number of investigations, not the other way round? Plus, if we are now moving to a subject focus for investigations, what is the business cycle? Is it only larger subject areas that are at risk of further scrutiny, or will smaller and more specialist areas be considered as well?
In sum, it appears that before implementation of the B3 risk framework, we have moved to a process of investigation based on undefined thresholds or metrics, accepted a subject-based evaluation rather than sector or institution, and accepted that volume balances against scale of variance. Consequently, questions must be asked about the timings, approach and motives for this announcement, which comes before the new Chief Executive of the OfS has been announced and also before a much-anticipated ministerial reshuffle.
Although none of the eight affected providers is yet to be named in public, it is imperative that the OfS is transparent about its reasons behind these investigations before any reputational damage is done to these providers, to their students and, above all, to the trust that must lie behind the OfS’s relationship with the sector if it is to be an effective and respected regulator.
Read Monday’s blog by Susan Lapworth, Interim Chief Executive of the Office for Students, ‘Ministers should not politicise the work of the OfS: discuss’ here.