England’s higher education regulator to ‘raise quality bar’

Office for Students sets out plans for tougher minimum standards related to student outcomes, including degree completion rates and graduate employment

November 17, 2020
Raising the bar
Source: iStock

England’s higher education regulator is to clamp down on higher education providers with high dropout rates under wide-ranging plans to “raise the bar on quality and standards”.

Under existing rules, the Office for Students (OfS) currently requires institutions to ensure at least 75 per cent of their full-time first-degree students progress from the first to second year of study – one of several student outcome “baselines” related to continuation, completion and progression into employment that are used to monitor a provider’s performance.

In a consultation published on 17 November, however, the regulator proposes to “adopt an approach to setting numerical baselines that would result in an increased, more challenging performance requirement for all providers”.

While no alternative baselines are suggested in the document, it says that it is “important to set numerical baselines at a level that would appear to a student, a parent, a reasonable lay person, or the taxpayer, to represent a high quality baseline and so a minimum acceptable level of performance”.

Given that a 75 per cent continuation rate implies that “a quarter of a provider’s students could start a course and not progress into their second year of study”, the regulator adds that it does “not consider that this level of performance would pass a public interest test on an ongoing basis”.

Instead, it suggests that a continuation rate of 90 per cent is “likely to appear to any reasonable person to be a good outcome and not represent any regulatory concern”, although it adds that this threshold may be “too high”.

The consultation adds that it aims to assess student outcomes at a “more granular level by considering performance of a provider at subject level”.

This approach would help locate pockets of underperformance at providers that made their numerical baselines at an institutional aggregate level but not at a subject level: some 65,000 students on courses in 2018-19 – 3 per cent of all students − would not have made these baselines if this approach had been taken, it explains.

The regulator also says that it aims to revisit its approach to institutions that cater largely for “under-represented groups”, such as ethnic minority students, saying that permitting lower performance baselines for these institutions “would risk baking their disadvantage into the regulatory system” in the form of lower standards.

The consultation follows plans from Universities UK, announced on 16 November, to establish a charter to help identify and improve potentially low-value or low-quality courses – which were identified as an area of concern in the UK government’s 2019 election manifesto.

Commenting on the OfS’ latest plans to raise standards, Nicola Dandridge, the regulator’s chief executive, said that the “proposals strengthen our ability to intervene where we have concerns”.

“We have previously been clear that we are determined to stamp out any pockets of low quality, and these proposals would not only raise the bar in terms of the quality overall but would enable us to monitor quality at a subject level, as well as taking into account issues which might be affecting students from particular groups,” Ms Dandridge added.

She said that the consultation made it clear that the regulator did “not accept that expectations should be lowered for students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

“All students are entitled to the same minimum level of quality and outcomes, and it would be untenable to have a regulatory system which allowed universities to recruit students from underrepresented groups but then set lower expectations for their success,” said Ms Dandridge.

Michelle Donelan, England’s universities minister, welcomed the consultation, which will run until 12 January, and said that it was important “to explore ways to tackle low-quality courses”.

“I am pleased that the OfS aims to raise the bar on quality and standards,” said Ms Donelan. “We must have robust regulation of our higher education system, which includes strong action if standards slip and principles that protect students’ interests.”


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Reader's comments (4)

Dropout rates, employment rates etc... should be adjusted for the unemployment rates in the year of graduation, and quality of student intake etc... It does not make sense to talk about all these outcomes without such adjustments. In addition, stop using silly student surveys as indices of teaching quality - evidence shows that it does not measure teaching quality. Call it consumer experience or satisfaction if you have to because it is a more accurate description - students can be happy but learn nothing from their degree courses. Include employer's evaluation of how well prepared/trained graduates are as relevant to their degrees - sample employers who have employed specific graduates from specific universities and not just some random impressionistic survey.
"some 65,000 students on courses in 2018-19 – 3 percent of all students − would not have made these baselines if this approach had been taken, it explains". Is this at the 75% or 90% threshold? Either way it is disappointing to have this level of drop out and the reasons behind the drop out should be investigated. If it is based on the 90% at subject level this may be a fair price to pay. We do not stop schools from trying to help disadvantaged students learn GCSE maths just because 10% or more fail to get a good grade. I wonder how many students complete a 3 year degree course without being awarded a degree? Surely this figure might be a better indicator of which subjects at which Universities are not providing value for money?
How does a high drop out rate or even a low pass rate for a particular subject at a particular University signify "low quality courses"? The drop out may be because the content of the course is not popular with the students. The low pass rate may be because the content is too challenging for the average student. When a cohort of students from disadvantaged backgrounds performs less well than the average, why is the University to blame. Surely the Ofs should be measuring the "value added" by the University rather than the absolute level? "All students are entitled to the same minimum level of quality and outcomes, and it would be untenable to have a regulatory system which allowed universities to recruit students from underrepresented groups but then set lower expectations for their success,” said Ms Dandridge." This is a ridiculous statement, particularly with reference to "outcomes". What does it actually mean? Where is the proof that Universities are setting " lower expectations for their success"? The fact that they may get lower grades is not proof.
A high drop out rate in the first year and a low pass rate are signs of demanding and high quality courses (at least on the continent). British HE policy is deluded but very predictable.