Hertfordshire’s £66K fine is first major OfS sanction

‘Seriously negligent’ university overcharged students on franchised course ‘persistently’

November 12, 2018
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The University of Hertfordshire has become the first higher education provider to be fined by England’s new regulator, it has emerged.

The Office for Students (OfS) said that it had withheld £66,000 from the institution’s grant funding for this year because it had “persistently” overcharged students taking a franchised course at a partner college. The university was also ordered to reimburse the students involved.

In a statement, the OfS said that Hertfordshire had been “seriously negligent in breaching its access agreement over three consecutive years, and in failing to take action to avoid further breach[es]”.

This is the first fine imposed on a provider by the OfS, which has much stronger powers to punish breaches of access agreements – documents that universities must adhere to if they wish to charge higher fees of up to £9,250 annually – than its predecessor in this area, the Office for Fair Access (Offa).

The OfS said that 44 students at the Pen Green Centre for Children and their Families, a Corby-based provider of training in early years education, had been charged £9,000 in 2016-17 rather than the stipulated fee of about £6,000. This represented a total overcharge of £132,000.

Offa had previously warned Hertfordshire over similar breaches in 2014-15 and 2015-16, when new full-time entrants at Pen Green should have been charged £5,500 but were made to pay £1,250 or £1,500 extra. The university had then given assurances that there would be “no anomalies” in fees in 2016-17.

Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network, said that it was “important that universities take the welfare of students in their franchised courses seriously…particularly as such students often come from under-represented groups”.

“It is worrying that it takes the OfS to get the university to deal with this issue properly when the university should be able to do it themselves,” Dr Atherton said.

A Hertfordshire spokeswoman said that, since it was informed of the breach in March this year, the university had “cooperated fully with OfS to rectify the error and ensure that the 44 students involved were reimbursed any fees they should not have incurred”.

“We have learned from this error and have since taken the necessary steps to make sure a breach of this nature does not occur again,” she said.

Details of the sanction emerged alongside confirmation from the OfS that it had imposed conditions on three universities, demanding improvements that must be made if they are to maintain their registered status.

The University of Bolton and London Metropolitan University were both warned that they needed to improve on delivering successful outcomes for all students, while Oxford Brookes University was told to improve its evaluation of its performance on serving under-represented students. All three will be required to demonstrate by the end of January how they will take action to improve outcomes.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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