‘More assertive’ OfS reassures universities on quality plans

‘There will not be armies of OfS inspectors assessing teaching quality,’ says chief executive in annual report

December 1, 2021
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England’s higher education regulator has promised to be “more assertive” in ensuring that universities uphold standards but has sought to reassure institutions that there will not be “armies of inspectors” assessing teaching quality.

Publishing its annual review, the Office for Students’ leaders spotlighted its plans to introduce new minimum requirements for student outcomes, including graduate employment.

“We will be more assertive in intervening to ensure that universities and colleges uphold their obligations…One course that fails to deliver positive outcomes for students is one course too many,” Lord Wharton of Yarm, the regulator’s new chair, writes in a foreword.

But the OfS has courted controversy with its proposal to judge institutions using an absolute baseline on student outcomes, including proportions going into “managerial and professional” jobs, declining to benchmark the metric to take account of student social background.

Some fear that the outcomes measure could be used as a “back-door student number control”, pressuring universities to stop recruiting on courses close to the baseline.

Nicola Dandridge, the regulator’s outgoing chief executive, acknowledges in her commentary that the proposals have “provoked quite a debate, and we have adjusted our plans as a result of the feedback we have received”.

“It is important to emphasise again that we expect the majority of registered providers to comfortably outperform the requirements we set in our quality conditions: there will not be armies of OfS inspectors assessing teaching quality, creating rafts of additional bureaucracy,” Ms Dandridge writes. “Many providers that we regulate already offer good or outstanding higher education and will be left to get on with what they are already doing well.”

But Ms Dandridge adds: “What we cannot do is tolerate the minority of providers that are letting students down. Nobody embarks on a higher education course expecting to find it uninspiring and of poor quality, so that they end up dropping out, or to be unable to find employment afterwards.

“Universities and colleges heavily promote the quality of their courses and the employment prospects of their graduates in their marketing; they know how important these are to their students. So courses that offer little to students will have to change, or they will have to close.”

Some think that the OfS’ plans on quality are focused mainly on alternative providers and driven by the response to a legal challenge brought by the for-profit Bloomsbury Institute, which argued that the regulator had not taken account of its student demographic in withdrawing student loan access over quality concerns.

Lord Wharton, a Conservative peer, signalled that the OfS would back the government’s “levelling-up” agenda, signalling that tackling regional inequality would be a priority for the organisation in the future.

“Well-paid graduate employment is concentrated in London and the south-east. As we recover from the pandemic, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that ‘where you are from’ continues to matter less, and ‘what you can offer’ continues to matter more,” he says.


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