Court quashes OfS’ refusal to register for-profit college

English regulator ordered to pay substantial costs to Bloomsbury Institute after blocking loan access

August 14, 2020
Royal Courts of Justice
Source: iStock

A for-profit college in England has won an appeal against a court ruling that blocked it from accessing public student loans.

In March, a court backed the Office for Students’ decision to refuse registration to Bloomsbury Institute over quality and management concerns, meaning that it could not recruit new publicly funded students. But the Court of Appeal announced on 14 August that it had quashed the decision and ordered the OfS to reconsider the institution’s application.

The court ordered OfS to repay the institution £144,500 in costs as well as legal costs, and refused the English regulator’s application for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The OfS has been facing several legal challenges from institutions refused inclusion on its register of providers – its central regulatory mechanism – so the new ruling could have significant ramifications for the sector. Institutions must be listed on the register for their students to access funding from the Student Loans Company.

The OfS had refused to register Bloomsbury Institute on the grounds of continuation rates between the first and second years of study and student progression into professional and managerial employment – grounds that Bloomsbury Institute said amounted to discrimination against institutions that specialise in serving students from diverse backgrounds and lower-income households.

But the Court of Appeal said that the OfS staff who set the baselines and thresholds for continuation rates and student progression did not have the delegated authority to do so and the methodology should have been published and consulted upon. 

In the judgment, Lord Justice Males said that “the decision to use baselines more generally as the means by which demographic factors would be taken into account in assessing a provider’s performance, leaving only limited scope for consideration of the context of a particular provider, was itself an important policy decision” and therefore “a matter on which the OfS was required to consult”.

John Fairhurst, academic principal and managing director of Bloomsbury Institute, said the judgment was “a validation of the professionalism and expertise of our staff and allows us to continue our mission to support students from diverse backgrounds who might otherwise not have the opportunity to enter higher education”.

“Over 90 per cent of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our goal is to make higher education an inclusive and open space, offering all people, from all backgrounds, the opportunity to define and pursue success through education,” he said.

A spokesman for the OfS, which had called the original court ruling a “landmark victory”, said that “the judgment raises important public interest issues for the OfS and other regulators and public bodies”.

“We are considering the implications of the judgment and our next steps,” the spokesman added.

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