English regulator to measure progress on cutting bureaucracy

Office for Students will reflect on whether it is inflicting needless red tape on higher education, says its new chair

May 14, 2021
Chair of Office for Students James Wharton, Lord Wharton of Yarm

The Office for Students will assess whether it is increasing the regulatory burden faced by universities as part of its efforts to reduce bureaucracy in English higher education.

In his first speech since taking over as chair of England’s higher education regulator in April, Lord Wharton of Yarm, a Conservative peer who chaired Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign, was due to tell vice-chancellors that “reducing unnecessary burden will be a priority” during his term of office.

“We need to get the balance right between ensuring students and taxpayers enjoy the benefits of regulation without universities experiencing an overly bureaucratic process that detracts from their core purpose – delivering excellent teaching and research,” Lord Wharton was due to tell a Universities UK meeting on 14 May.

The OfS will publish details next week of a new key performance measure that will “set out transparently whether our work is reducing or increasing regulatory burden,” Lord Wharton was set to say.

The move comes amid criticisms that the OfS’ creation in 2018 has led to more bureaucracy for higher education institutions, despite frequent assurances that it would usher in an era of “light touch” oversight. There are also complaints that it has impinged on university autonomy.

It also mirrors similar efforts to cut higher education red tape, with a government-commission review led by Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, set to report back in the autumn. Such initiatives were believed to be inspired by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief aide, who has described universities as an “massive source of bureaucracy” and stated the government should get “very aggressive” on cutting red tape in higher education.

Speaking to vice-chancellors, Lord Wharton was due to say that the introduction of the new self-assessment metric was a “first step” towards cutting university bureaucracy and “an important step that will enable us to demonstrate – and be held to account for – the outcomes of our work in this area”.

“I hope you have already seen early signs of our intentions in our decision to suspend random sampling, reduce the use of enhanced monitoring, and increase the length of access and participation plans from one year to five,” he was due to say.

The regulator must “strike the right balance between being clear and specific to ensure we have the right information we need to regulate effectively, while operating a principles-based regulatory system which allows for autonomy and diversity in the sector”, Lord Wharton was due to say.

“We are serious about the need to tackle any needless bureaucracy and to ensure that our regulation is proportionate, truly risk-based and fair,” he was due to add.

Lord Wharton was also expected to confirm the OfS’ plans to assess quality by using an absolute baseline on student outcomes, including proportions going into “managerial and professional” jobs – a move that could deter universities from recruiting disadvantaged students, according to critics. Universities UK said it had “significant concerns” over the proposals.

In his speech, Lord Wharton was due to say that students starting their degrees “are right to expect that they will receive high-quality teaching and a springboard to a good career” and that “courses with high dropout rates and low progression to professional employment let students down”.

“We shouldn’t be reticent in saying so, or taking action,” he was due to say, though he added that “many” institutions will “comfortably outperform any numerical baselines we set – and will see regulatory burden fall as a result”.

“But where standards slip, we stand ready to intervene,” he will be set to add, saying the regulator would set out its next steps on quality shortly.


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Reader's comments (3)

Yes, remove TEF, REF, and all these money wasting and useless policies. Cap a university's budget devoted to paying 'leadership' management like VC salaries and the like.
Foster, encourage and reward long term thinking and committment.
About time I have been going on about the need to slash the excessive bureaucracy in UK Universities. It is out of control, full of overpaid bureaucrats means higher fees for students, less pay for the academics since most of the money is being wasted on bureaucrats and overpaid senior managers. Sure we need good front line administrators but we need a lot less of fluffy strategies, quality control types and far less regulation. The best way is to abolish the OfS, the Ref and KEF as they cause most of the bureaucracy.