Office for Students plans to bill universities for investigations

Additional fees to institutions that breach OfS rules may focus attention on growing regulatory costs

March 9, 2023
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Universities found to have breached regulatory conditions will be forced to pay the costs of the investigation, under plans unveiled by the English sector regulator.

In a consultation document published on 9 March, the Office for Students (OfS) said it would charge fees if it found that a provider had breached an ongoing condition of its registration or, in the case of compliance, if it deemed the provider to be at “increased risk of a breach”.

The charges for OfS staff costs would be based on the amount of time spent on a specific investigation and charged at the total cost of employment of that member of staff for each hour worked.

Other costs, including work done through any external organisation contracted to the OfS, will be based on the actual costs incurred by the OfS, says the regulator, although it did not give an idea of the likely financial cost of its investigations.

The proposed changes follow an amendment to the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, passed in December 2022, that “give[s] the OfS the power to charge a fee that recovers the costs of investigating a registered higher education provider’s activities”, said the watchdog.

News of the additional costs are likely to deepen criticisms about the rising costs of the OfS, which has a reported £30 million budget and 350 staff. Earlier this year, the Westminster government proposed to increase OfS fees by 13 per cent this year, sparking sector calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the regulator’s performance and whether it is delivering value for money for universities, some of which claim they are paying more than £500,000 a year for its oversight.

It has also faced criticism over its dismissive treatment of university staff and a perceived lack of political neutrality amid claims that its directives often come hours after similar statements made by ministers or politicians. In January, it promised to “refresh” its engagement after an independent review found that a “softer tone” would be appreciated by institutions.

On the proposed new charges, Nolan Smith, director of resources and finance at the OfS, said there was a “strong case that where we investigate, the university or college involved should shoulder the costs of our work”.

“At the same time, we will continue to take steps to understand and tackle unnecessary regulatory burden for those universities and colleges providing high-quality courses and good outcomes for their students,” he added.

The consultation will run until 14 April, and universities and colleges are encouraged to share their views with the OfS.

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Reader's comments (2)

No indication here of whether the university will be charged if the investigation prove negative.
Aren't there very obvious conflict of interest issues here. Am I missing something?