David Eastwood: OfS ‘not up to the job’

Ex-Birmingham v-c and Hefce chief exec tells MPs that England’s regulator lacks skills needed to engage properly with universities

March 21, 2023

One of Britain’s leading vice-chancellors of recent years has questioned whether the Office for Students is fit for purpose, claiming it avoids engagement with the institutions it regulates because it fears that “dialogue with the sector will diminish its authority”.

When he gave evidence on 21 March, Sir David Eastwood told a House of Lords select committee, which has begun an inquiry into the role and running of the OfS, that he had doubts about the regulator.

“Are they up to the job? No; they do not currently have the people that they need to engage in these dialogues,” said Sir David, who led the University of Birmingham for 12 years until December 2021, on the OfS' ability to communicate with different types of institution within the sector.

Sir David, who ran the OfS’ predecessor body the Higher Education Funding Council for England for three years before leading Birmingham, said the lack of regionally based teams made it harder for the OfS to conduct informal conversations with higher-education providers about the impact of regulatory requirements.

“The OfS has twice the number of people that I had when I was running Hefce, but the regional teams have disappeared,” reflected Sir David, who added that “as it is currently constituted, I do not think the OfS has the capability to curate those kinds of dialogue”.

The former Russell Group chair, who was also vice-chancellor at the University of East Anglia from 2002 to 2006, added that this lack of engagement appeared to be deliberate. “They almost think that if they are in dialogue with the sector it diminishes their authority,” said Sir David, who said engagement with institutions had fallen since Conservative peer Lord Wharton of Yarm became OfS chair in February 2021.

“Michael Barber and Nicola Dandridge were assiduous in getting into the sector and visiting institutions – that engagement is less conspicuous,” he continued. “The regulator seems more distant than it did in its first incarnation.”

Sir David told the committee that the level of regulatory data required from universities was also a problem. “In some areas, the data requirements have been perceived as disproportionate – not least because it is unclear what the regulator will do with the data,” he said, calling attention to the “considerable increase in data requirements, which place a burden on institutions, especially smaller institutions”.

“Risk-based regulation is an article of faith that is much more professed than practised,” summarised Sir David, who added that the promise of lighter-touch regulation for established providers “had not been fully delivered”.

The committee also heard from Susan Lea, vice-chancellor at the University of Hull from 2017 to 2022, who highlighted the lack of enforcement of OfS rules. “Sometimes they have not taken those steps that I would expect from them,” said Professor Lea, who noted that many universities had not been sanctioned for using unconditional offers to recruit students, despite an OfS moratorium on such offers in early 2020 when the pandemic meant offers were made on the basis of predicted grades,

“We did not make unconditional offers, but some universities did not abide by the moratorium – we struggled in terms of recruitment as our students went elsewhere,” said Professor Lea.

“Financially, it caused us a lot of trouble but there were no consequences for that."


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Reader's comments (3)

"....not least because it is unclear what the regulator will do with the data" They will put it in pie charts and other things that excel can make easily and look at it in meetings. That will be it.
I've yet to hear anyone say something GOOD about OfS. Does it have any redeeming qualities at all?
Yep time to abolish the useless OfS a bunch of failed bureaucrats that increases the amount of useless zero or negative value added bureaucrats infecting the UK Universities. Get rid of the OfS and then Universities will be able to slash these bureaucrats from the UK university system.


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