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Where next? A new dawn for the OfS (OfS over the horizon, part II)

  • 22 February 2024
  • By Derfel Owen and Ant Bagshaw
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Derfel Owen (LinkedIn), Director of Education Services at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Ant Bagshaw, Senior Advisor at L.E.K. Consulting.
  • This is the second part of two blogs focusing on the Office for Students. The first part was published yesterday and can be read here.

Yesterday we focussed on the story so far for the OfS. It has been troubled, but the course can be corrected. Today we set out some steps that can be taken to find common ground and a create regulatory environment that is accepted by all but beholden to none.

1 – Take action for effective regulation

To reframe its role, the OfS must first establish what constitutes ‘good regulation’ within the unique context of HE and its statutory duties. This involves striking a balance between assuring quality and standards, and allowing for academic innovation and freedom. It feels glib to write it, but good regulation should not be seen as a mere compliance checklist but as a framework that supports the growth and evolution of HEIs and recognises deeply established cultures and practices.

The OfS should also set out to assert itself as a holistic protector of good and manageable regulation. An alliance to tackle the chronic overreaching by Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs) would be most welcome. The burden from the many and varied ways in which these organisations operate is excessive. The regulation of apprenticeships is also in desperate need of an overhaul. The current approach is strangling degree-level apprenticeships. Arrangements with Ofsted and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) are too complex and need rationalising. OfS should take the lead.

2 – Relationships matter

All regulators have to strike a careful balance between maintaining independence and, at the same time, garnering goodwill and support from the regulated. Simply being established in statute is necessary but not sufficient, and for HE, this is doubly important when the same legislation that established the OfS asserts the autonomy of degree-awarding bodies.

The first task at hand is to address the deep-rooted mistrust between the OfS and institutions. A new approach to empathetic dialogue and transparent communications approach should aim to understand the concerns and challenges faced by HEIs, acknowledging their expertise, global reputation and track record in education. Constructive feedback mechanisms and regular consultations can foster a sense of partnership, rather than one of surveillance. And this process should be mutual with the sector showing willingness to collaborate, share and co-create.

3 – Assert your independence

An essential aspect of redefining the OfS lies in its ability to assert its independence and make bold, informed decisions. This assertiveness is crucial for the OfS to function as an effective regulator, capable of navigating the complex landscape of higher education while aligning with broader governmental objectives.

To help with this, the OfS needs to be seen to muscle-up with the Department for Education (DfE), establishing a stance of respectful, yet firm independence. This does not imply, and must not become, a confrontational approach, but rather the capacity to make autonomous decisions based on empirical data, expert advice and what is required to meet its statutory responsibilities. It will require the courage to push back sometimes from governmental directives when they conflict with, or distract from, the best interests of HE and students.

4 – Be flexible

The educational landscape is changing rapidly, and in this context the OfS must demonstrate foresight and flexibility to ensure the regulatory framework is both current and forward-looking. This requires ongoing research, engagement with educational innovators, and a willingness to revise and be flexible with regulation in response to new trends and challenges.

The OfS should develop well-understood mechanisms that allow for it to adjust to emerging trends and issues. This could involve having clear principles with adaptable regulatory guidelines and assurances to providers that there will be flexibility in judgement to accommodate new forms of teaching and learning without compromising on quality or standards. The conditions of registration are mixed on this front: some are quite prescriptive and others are broader, with room for flexibility and interpretation, this should be fixed. Additionally, the OfS should be open to pilot projects and experimentation, using these as opportunities to demonstrate that it supports the sector to learn and evolve.

5 – Students

To build on the OfS’ existing student engagement, it could helpfully recognise that meeting its obligation to safeguard the student interest cannot be delivered directly: it can only be delivered directly by the providers which recruit and teach students. A decade or so ago, you could not move for institutions going out of their way to tell you how actively they sought to engage and involve students in shaping their university. This energy seems to have dissipated, and it has done so in coincidence with a body called the Office for Students being established.

The OfS should play a pivotal role in promoting a culture of student engagement within providers, putting students at the heart of its mission, and expecting HE providers to do the same. The OfS should make it a point of unequivocal principle that evidence of engagement with the student body is the strongest possible sign that HEIs are acting in the student interest and that is what is expected of a sophisticated and mature higher education provider. This approach not only benefits students: it enriches the educational environment, leading to institutions that are more attuned to the needs and potential of their student body. Different methods can be adopted to reflect the nature of the student body, but the expectation should be clear. It should go a step further too, by reintroducing the commitment established by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), and now commonplace internationally, of including students as assessors on quality assessment teams.

6 – Embrace TEF

It’s time to make peace with the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). The process is far from perfect as it stands, but it is evolving and is becoming embedded in institutional processes. We should keep shaping and improving the framework so that it provides assurance of ongoing quality and that it underpins enhancement. Both the OfS and the sector have worked collaboratively and well in this space, finessing the evidence base, the process and the ‘ratings’ system. It should form the core of the regulatory system, recognising enhancement and innovation in the quality of teaching.

7 – The Quality Assurance Agency

Should the agency get back to its position as the Designated Quality Body? Yes. QAA needs to evolve to meet the OfS’ changing needs, but that can – and must – be done in dialogue rather than through diktat, unlocking the value of an arm’s-length quality body. The current arrangement makes no sense, and the sector would likely be delighted to have the situation resolved, it would be a very good first sign that the OfS is listening and responding.


The OfS stands at a pivotal point in its evolution. We can’t wish it away, and we probably shouldn’t. By embracing these strategies and committing to ongoing self-reflection and improvement, OfS can truly become an effective, respected, and valued regulator, playing a key role in shaping the sector.

A new government will bring change, one way or another. In the absence of some big reform process, the new guard should focus on that which can practically change for the better. There’s a lot to be done in quality, and that’s where OfS should start.

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1 comment

  1. Maureen McLaughlin says:

    could we also go further and suggest that OfS needs to understand how the rest of the world (including its other UK counterparts) sees and values Quality and also, needs to understand how the world views the work of the OfS. English HE doesn’t exist in a vacuum and we have much to learn from other jurisdictions and indeed to share but the OfS isnt currently providing leadership in this respect

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