The latest ministerial guidance is an affront to the OfS’ independence

If the English regulator agrees to tear up universities’ current access plans it risks undermining any perception of autonomy, says Geoffrey Alderman

January 11, 2022
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A recent letter from the UK government to the Office for Students welcoming its appointment of John Blake as its new director of fair access and participation takes the form of fresh and uniquely overbearing statutory guidance.

While ritualistically thanking Blake’s predecessor, Chris Millward, the letter makes clear that in the view of its writers, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi and higher education minister Michelle Donelan, much remains to be done.

The letter acknowledges that the proportion of state school entrants to Oxbridge increased from 59 to 66 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-20, and that the proportion of children receiving free school meals who progress to higher education by age 19 has increased from 19.8 per cent in 2010-11 to 26.6 per cent in 2019-20. But, the ministers contend, “the gap between the most and least advantaged students remains stubbornly open”, noting that the latter figure falls to 12.6 per cent among white British males.

The ministers also complain that the proportion of black students achieving first-class and upper second-class degrees is 18.3 percentage points lower than for white students. “It also cannot be right that some notional gains in access have resulted from recruiting students from underrepresented groups onto courses where more than 50 per cent of students do not get positive outcomes from their degree,” the letter adds.

Hence, after damning Millward and his team with faint praise, the meat of the letter announces that access and participation are to undergo a radical “refocus” to ensure that the courses to which non-traditional students are admitted “are genuinely high quality, with support for students to both complete their studies and develop the skills and knowledge that will lead to graduate employment or further study”.

Furthermore, universities are now required to “play a key role…in raising school standards, increasing pupils’ aspirations, and levelling the playing field for future students”. To this end, the OfS is required to tear up the current five-year access and participation plans, painstakingly drafted by providers, diligently approved by the regulator, and now in their second year of operation. They are to be replaced with new plans that “require providers to promote equality of opportunity before [my emphasis] entry to higher education, and support schools to drive up academic standards. This includes working meaningfully with schools to ensure that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged and supported to achieve their full potential”, via such things as “summer schools, programmes of intervention in schools and targeted bursaries to assist with living costs” once they are at university.

So the new focus must be on supporting primary and secondary schools, rather than targeting discrete groups currently under-represented in higher education. Moreover, degrees must in future have a primarily government-defined purely functional purpose, namely to facilitate “access to highly-skilled employment”. That is what the writers of the letter mean by that curious phrase “positive outcomes”.

As things stand, “not everyone benefits from their degree”, says the letter. How do the ministers know? In my 50-year experience of British higher education, almost everyone benefits from their degree – although, admittedly, this may not be at all apparent immediately after graduation.

The letter announces that only firsts and upper seconds count as good degree outcomes. This is absurd. I can think of outstanding individuals who were awarded lower seconds. The celebrated novelist J. K. Rowling got one in French and Classics at the University Exeter. Carol Vorderman, the distinguished TV mathematician, apparently got a third in engineering at Cambridge. And what about the late Labour Lord Chancellor Gerald Gardiner, who actually got an Oxford fourth!

In their letter, Zahawi and Donelan go out of their way to remind the OfS that it is bound by statute to “have regard” to “guidance” given by the secretary of state. But they do not mention that the OfS is equally bound by that same statute, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, to “have regard” to “the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” [section 2(1) (a)].

If the OfS slavishly follows the guidance set out in this letter, I fear it risks abandoning any claim to be taken seriously as an independent regulator.

Geoffrey Alderman is principal of Nelson College London.

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Reader's comments (2)

"If the OfS slavishly follows the guidance set out in this letter, I fear it risks abandoning any claim to be taken seriously as an independent regulator." Since when did it have one? It would be a joke if it wasn't so much of a threat to university freedom. OfSTED has already ruined compulsory education and has been making intrusions into Further Education. We need to learn that lesson and make sure that uninformed politically-motivated meddling is never allowed anywhere near Higher Education.
Er, how do you square complaining about people getting awards below upper seconds and complaining about grade inflation because too many people are being awarded firsts and upper seconds?