Don’t get rid of the Office for Students, urges Dandridge

Former OfS chief executive turned Bristol professor defends regulator ‘looking out for the interests of students’ as it comes under scrutiny

March 16, 2023
Source: Getty

Having the Office for Students as England’s regulator “looking out for the interests of students” is “essential”, according to its former chief executive, as the regulator comes under increasing criticism and scrutiny.

Nicola Dandridge was speaking after leaving the OfS in April last year and becoming a professor of practice in higher education policy at the University of Bristol, where she plans to examine sector issues such as the relationship between teaching and research, and how students make their choices about where and what to study.

Alongside former OfS chair Sir Michael Barber, Professor Dandridge gave evidence to a House of Lords committee as it begun an inquiry into the OfS, covering issues including “its independence from and relationship with the government” and “whether it has the necessary expertise and resources to carry out its functions”.

Many university leaders are concerned by what they see as the OfS’ failure to be risk-based in regulation, resulting in demands that all institutions provide a huge amount of data, and by a perceived failure to maintain independence from Conservative administrations that have sometimes been hostile to universities on issues such as free speech.

The OfS was created to accompany the advent of a system in which funding was routed via students and their loans.

It was “completely essential there is a regulator looking out for the interests of students”, Professor Dandridge, who is also a former Universities UK chief executive, told Times Higher Education. “It’s just not good enough to say, I don’t think, ‘Do away with the OfS; we want a buffer body to protect us from government.’ Because how are you going to look after the interests of students?”

She added: “I think it’s quite right there’s a regulator in higher education, and OfS is the right organisation doing a good job…I can’t see any merit in some of the criticisms. I think it’s really essential, more than ever, to have the OfS as the regulator.”

In her part-time professorship at Bristol, she intends to “explore various issues I’ve been aware of and which have concerned me” in her time at the OfS and at UUK.

The higher education system has “split off the regulation and oversight of research and teaching into two separate bodies”, which has been “overwhelmingly” a “necessary and good step”, Professor Dandridge said. “But nonetheless…I always thought we needed to be a bit more aware of what the consequences were. Not with a view to amalgamation but with a view to seeing whether there are consequences that need to be mitigated.”

Her work on that would include looking at how universities themselves “manage the relationship between teaching and research – because increasingly in many universities they are being separated out in structures and staffing as well”.

Looking at the topic of student choices was important “because so much of our system is premised on that decision-making process”, said Professor Dandridge.

She added: “I think if you are going to have a system that’s modelled on student choice, then we probably need to pay a bit more attention to how students make those choices. However brilliant the teaching and learning, if you are studying the wrong thing in the wrong place, it’s not going to be a good outcome for you.”

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Reader's comments (2)

Ofs didn't get off to a very good start did they. Remember this?
The OfS should be abolished, it leads to huge administrative work for universities and this means less money to focus on students. Cut the bureaucracy and cut it now !!!