The Office for Students needs to tighten its belt, too

Reports of a 13 per cent rise in registration fees is unjustifiable in the current economic environment, says Stephen Marston

January 16, 2023
A suited man tightens his belt
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To say that speculation that the Office for Students (OfS) would be raising its fees this year by 13 per cent has been met with surprise would be something of an understatement.

There are as many opinions on the OfS in higher education as there are academics, but all of us agree that good, practical and effective regulation is needed and, crucially, has the potential to do enormous good. The OfS has worked with universities to drive change, and its goals of improving transparency and accountability, as well as securing a high-quality experience for students, are indisputable. We also understand that the increased remit of the organisation as part of their free speech work has led to a rise in their costs.

But a rise on this scale simply isn’t reasonable given the financial challenges the sector is facing. These increases come at a time of extraordinary financial strain for many, and universities are no exception. As of 2022, the real value of the regulated home tuition fee has fallen to around £6,600 in 2012 terms (the year £9,000 fees were introduced).

This is due in part to this year’s extraordinary inflation, but it also reflects government decisions over a decade not to allow fees to rise in any year except 2017 (when the cap rose to £9,250). Universities all accept the need to operate efficiently and effectively, and we all recognise that organisations across the country are having to do more with less. So, each year, we accommodate increases in pay and non-pay costs, while striving to increase the range and quality of services for students in areas such as mental health, well-being and employability, as well as core teaching and learning. Added to that is the imperative to help students facing real hardship as their own living costs rise steeply.

Faced with all these pressures, many universities were already struggling to make ends meet, so forcing them to pay so much more for regulation must come at a cost elsewhere. The increased financial and time commitment that the OfS is demanding will inevitably result in resources being diverted away from supporting students.

There are already widespread concerns within the sector about the time and resource cost of regulation. In this context, it is understandable if universities question the justification for such a large increase in the regulatory fee. It is surely fair to expect the regulator itself to deliver value for money and to do more with less, just as the sector is doing. And we would welcome a serious discussion about how the costs and burdens of regulation can be eased to ensure that the fees we are required to pay do not unnecessarily consume funds that would be better spent on our core purposes of teaching, research and support for students.

Ultimately, all of us – government, regulators and university leaders – want the best for our institutions and for our students. We want the UK to continue to provide the sort of world-leading education our country has built a reputation for, and to produce graduates and researchers who have the power to change their own lives and those of others around them for the better. However, the consistent financial pressure being heaped upon the sector puts this at risk.

We urge the government to reconsider the level of OfS fee increase that is being proposed. If nothing else, then we ask at least for equity. The fiscal situation we are facing as a country is difficult for all, and terrible for many, and we appreciate that this is not the time for universities to be asking for more money. But in these circumstances, we do expect that the regulatory fee imposed on universities should fully reflect the belt-tightening that is being required of everyone, and that the OfS will play its part, alongside the sector, in doing more for less.

Stephen Marston is vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire and a board member of Universities UK.

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