‘Conflict-seeking’ OfS vows to reset engagement with universities

Chief executive Susan Lapworth says regulator will ‘respond positively and practically’ to recommendations from highly critical report

January 26, 2023
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The English sector regulator has promised to “refresh” its engagement with universities after an independent review found that it was perceived as hostile, high-handed and too led by ministerial directions.

Many higher education providers also claimed that they were “confused by the complexity of some [Office for Students] processes, communications and consultations”, with missives described as “lengthy and difficult to unpick” and containing “regulatory requirements [taking] up a significant administrative resource”.

“Long forms requiring the same information to be inputted multiple times, and extremely short timescales for the return of documents followed by long waits for a response or for clarifications which could hold up a process for many months” were also identified as problems by the report from Shift Learning, a consultancy that interviewed 32 senior university leaders about the OfS, which was created in 2018 with the aim of providing “light-touch” regulation for established institutions.

Those interviewed for the report, published on 26 January, outlined a litany of complaints against the OfS, including a “lack of clarity in the role of the OfS”, “communications which are too legalistic and non-collegiate” and a “lack of a dedicated named contact” – with some stating that they were “nostalgic about the more collaborative approach” taken by its predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce).

Some of the strongest criticisms concern the regulator’s perceived lack of independence, with a “widely held belief that the OfS operated too closely to government, serving too directly and being too reactive to the government agenda, which was seen to conflict with its independent, arm’s-length position”.

One interviewee explained that the OfS seemed to respond too quickly to “a never-ending succession of ministers, all of whom have political points to make”, while another stated that the “dramatic increase in the number of letters from government to the OfS around strategic advice direction (from once or twice a year to 15 in one year)” had led to a similar number of directions from the OfS, with “repeated interventions [having] the knock-on effect of generating conflicting messages for providers”.

Some university staff pointed out the “similarity in formal and legalistic tone between ministers’ letters…and those sent from the OfS”, with the study noting that there was a “perception of what was termed ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to government imperatives and media attention…[which] was seen by some to highlight the OfS as an ‘immature’ regulator in contrast with other regulators”.

A “‘softer’ tone and a more consultative or supportive approach to the organisations [the OfS] regulated” would be appreciated by universities, the study recommends, because communications were seen as “unnecessarily tough” and as “seeking conflict with all providers as a means to achieve standards across the sector”.

Both large and small providers voiced dissatisfaction with the OfS, the study says. Smaller institutions “reported that OfS demands sometimes felt like a mismatch for the size and scale of their provider type and that the OfS was primarily geared towards large, established universities”. Larger universities, meanwhile, “felt that communications they received were ‘disproportionately tough’ and reflected a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach which did not reflect their track records of student success”, the report finds.

The report comes just days after English sector representative groups called for a parliamentary inquiry into the OfS’ performance, raising concerns about the administrative burden that it brought and its perceived lack of independence from government.

In a blog post, the OfS chief executive vows to “refresh our engagement with universities”, explaining that the regulator has “identified areas where we could improve our engagement, where institutions were critical of our approach”.

“There are clearly areas identified in the interviews where improvements can be made, as well as issues that may reflect the necessary difference in approach between the OfS and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, our main predecessor – the OfS has statutory powers and exercising those appropriately needs different approaches to those adopted by a buffer body with only funding powers,” says Ms Lapworth.

“Nevertheless, the report is a valuable barometer of sector perceptions and we are keen to respond positively and practically.”


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