It is “profoundly misleading” to suggest that England’s regulator will “sit back and wait for providers to fail”, but “to pile limited public resource into a failing institution is palpably not a good way forward”, according to its chief executive.
Nicola Dandridge spoke to Times Higher Education as the Office for Students marks a year since beginning full operations in April 2018 – in which some vice-chancellors have portrayed the regulator as too interventionist on many issues and reliant on “threats”, but also too accepting of the possibility of institutional failure.
The OfS was set up by the government to accompany the transition to a fees-based funding system and to regulate in “the student interest”, with an entirely different relationship with the sector from that of its predecessor organisation, the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In switching from the post of Universities UK chief executive, Ms Dandridge went from representing universities to regulating them.
In its first year, the OfS brought in staff from both Hefce and the Office for Fair Access and set about developing its strategy and implementing the new regulatory framework, she said.
And the OfS has also created the register of providers on which institutions must be included if they wish to access public student loans. This has been “an absolutely huge undertaking”, said Ms Dandridge. For the first time ever, there has been a “review of every university and provider that wants to access public funding”, she added.
During this process, “the question of financial sustainability has emerged, unsurprisingly”, Ms Dandridge said. “Not in the sense that we are worried about widespread financial collapse; because we’re not. But there are issues we will be watching closely to ensure institutions don’t get into trouble.”
Sir Michael Barber, the OfS chair, attracted criticism from some when he said that the regulator “will not bail out universities or other course providers in financial difficulty”.
But the OfS has the powers and the oversight of performance data that will enable it to be “proactive in preventing” collapses, Ms Dandridge said.
“It’s profoundly misleading to imply we’re just going to sit back and wait for providers to fail,” she said in response to critics. “That is a priority for us – to do what we can to stop that from happening,” she added.
But “having said that…to pile limited public resource into a failing institution is palpably not a good way forward”, Ms Dandridge said. That would mean “teaching grant…would be taken away from other providers to fund a failing institution for no good purpose”, she explained.
Ms Dandridge has previously said that it would not be the OfS’ job to “seek the sector’s friendship”.
When the OfS published a data analysis on the rise of unconditional offers in January – saying that it would empower students to challenge “pressure selling” – “there was some pushback from the sector on that”, said Ms Dandridge. “Some people really didn’t like our position on it, felt it undermined their own position and policy on admissions and all the rest of it.”
But the feedback from the sector in general, students and parents was “overwhelmingly positive”, showing “real concern” particularly on conditional unconditional offers, she said.
The OfS will “work constructively and respectfully with what is a fantastically world-leading, high-quality sector”, Ms Dandridge continued. She added: “We want their respect, but not to approve what we do. We’re a regulator.”
She acknowledged the “very close correlation between institutional autonomy and the success of our sector” and noted that legislation states that the OfS must have regard to institutional autonomy. But she added: “Does that mean we should not intervene where we see evidence of malpractice and poor quality provision? Absolutely not.”
In terms of the future, Ms Dandridge said: “We’ve said that we want to intervene at sector level in various areas. What will become clear in 2019-20 is what that will look like.”
The OfS has set up two funding programmes, “one looking at how we can incentivise and encourage…local graduates who choose to study and then work in their local areas” and the other on student mental health.
The next year should bring a “more balanced picture of who we are as a regulator” beyond the registration process, as well as a new phase in the OfS’ student engagement to reflect “past, current and future student interests”, said Ms Dandridge.
Asked about the switch from UUK to OfS, she said that “yes, it has meant I don’t have the same relationship with vice-chancellors and many others in the sector”.
But the switch has brought a “new and different relationship with students, which has been completely inspirational…I now see the higher education sector through a slightly different lens”, Ms Dandridge said.
Print headline: OfS ‘will be proactive to prevent closures’
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