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How should the Office for Students respond to the ‘most excoriating parliamentary report in the last decade’?

  • 9 October 2023
  • By Charles Clarke and Paul Ashwin
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Charles Clarke (Visiting Professor at Lancaster University and former Secretary of State for Education and Skills as well as former Home Secretary) and Paul Ashwin (Professor of Higher Education and Head of the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University). They have previously written about the Office for Students for HEPI, which you can read here.
  • HEPI is hosting two upcoming webinars: on the topic of climate change and student mental health on the 18th October with Student Minds and the UPP Foundation, and the relationship between teaching and research in UK universities on the 6th November with the University of Bristol. Registration is now open: you can register via the links above.

The report of the Industry and Regulators Committee of the House of Lords into the Office for Students, which was published on September 13th, hits the political sweet spot.

The period of deep uncertainty and consequent political instability which has lasted since 2015 and then the Brexit referendum has given undeserved political power to extremist political minorities within both the Conservative and Labour Parties. This seemed to come to an end with the arrival of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer at the leadership of their parties.

Now both the main parties are limbering up for what will be a tense and difficult general election probably in late 2024. Though one element of uncertainty for universities has been clarified by the re-established UK membership of the Horizon Programme this Lords report raises the most important questions for universities which will face either party in government. The report is possibly the most excoriating parliamentary report in the last decade in relation to any governmental institution. It makes retention of the status quo impossible. So what can be predicted?

First the government’s response to this report, due to be published later this year, is unlikely to have any real substance. The issues are too great to be resolved in the short term and there is insufficient time between then and the general election for the current government to fully address the criticisms and concerns of the committee.

Second the corollary of this first point is it will be down to the incoming government, whether a re-elected Conservative government (or coalition dominated by them) or a newly elected Labour government (possibly also in coalition) to establish the new framework for regulating universities to replace the existing OFS with its failed practices.

Third the period between now and the general election will include the preparation and publication of the party manifestos and the general election debate in a wide variety of different fora. These will inevitably ventilate more widely the issues raised by the Lords Committee, which so far have received disappointingly little public media attention.

And so the fourth consequence is that the main political parties will need in the next few months to prepare their answers to the questions which will certainly arise both from universities and more widely.

This is the overall political environment within which the future of universities will be considered and it is the environment which universities need to decide how best, if at all, to influence. This context will be wider than just the Lords Committee report but the report summarises the issues which will need to be addressed.

There are eight main challenges that will need to be met if the issues raised by the report are to be meaningfully addressed:

  1. The OfS, or its successor, will need a new legislative framework which clearly sets out its duties including its obligation to protect the institutional autonomy of universities – by the way, an obligation which goes back to the establishment of its predecessor the University Grants Committee in 1919.
  2. The ‘new OfS’ will need to work in partnership with the sector, particularly the National Union of Students and Higher Education Institutions, to define clearly ‘students’ interests’ and show how these are central to its regulatory approach.
  3. The new OfS will be required to follow the widely established principles of best regulatory practice and alignment with the Regulators’ Code; it will need to align its guidance with the latest consumer protection guidance issued by the Competition and Markets Authority and regulatory responsibilities in the sector will need to be streamlined.
  4. The Committee’s conclusion that ‘The current system of higher education funding is not sustainable’ is dramatic. It is unlikely that the main political parties will leave the new OfS to address this difficult issue. This will of course of itself be a critical general election agenda item. It is unlikely that it will be possible to revisit the solutions of appointing independent enquirers such as Lionel Robbins who reported in 1963, Ron Dearing in 1997 and John Browne in 2010. It will therefore be the responsibility of the potential governments to put forward a stable funding model for higher education that enables universities to plan for the long-term sustainability of the sector. This might well include promoting the possibility of university mergers and acquisitions.
  5. And it will be the responsibility of the new OfS to identify means of effectively monitoring university financial sustainability and determining how best to intervene, or not, where financial unsustainability is identified.
  6. The interesting proposal of the Committee to do better work to identify the value of higher education to the individual student will probably not be left to the new OfS to resolve.
  7. The new legislation will need to establish an effective and coherent approach to maintaining the quality of university courses.
  8. And finally a recurrent theme will be that whatever new arrangements are made, the new OfS must be fully independent politically from the government of the day and from short-term political pressures, sometimes driven by ill-informed media flurries.

These issues will form the political agenda for universities in the coming year and so the university community should now be thinking very seriously how best to influence their consideration and discussion.

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