OfS: English universities must ‘equip students with skills’ to succeed

Regulator proposes new conditions of registration that also include standard on grade inflation

July 20, 2021
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New conditions on universities to provide “a high quality academic experience” and to “equip students with the skills they need to succeed after they graduate” have been proposed by England’s higher education regulator.

The Office for Students (OfS) is also proposing that institutions ensure that students “receive credible qualifications that stand the test of time” as part of a batch of new rules that universities would have to meet on minimum standards.

The proposals follow last winter’s preliminary consultation on changes to the way the OfS assesses standards, which said that it would tackle “low quality” provision, a frequent target for the Westminster government.

In putting forward its more detailed proposals, the OfS said its new conditions would allow it to “intervene more frequently in universities and colleges where courses fall below expectations and require improvement”.

“The proposals would give the OfS sharper regulatory tools to tackle artificial grade inflation and to take robust action where the quality of higher education slips at a particular university – including where courses in certain subjects or for particular groups of students do not meet minimum requirements,” a statement said.

According to the new detailed proposals put forward by the OfS, all universities and other providers would have to meet the following rules – named the “B conditions” – to remain registered:

  • a condition that would mandate universities to provide “a high quality academic experience, where courses are up-to-date, effectively delivered, provide educational challenge, and equip students with the skills they need to succeed after they graduate”.
  • a requirement “that all students receive the resources and support they need to succeed during their course and beyond”.
  • a condition that would require “universities and colleges to ensure students are assessed effectively, and receive credible qualifications that stand the test of time”.
  • a condition that “would ensure that the standards of courses are consistent with sector-recognised standards”.

The OfS’ approach to the regulation of minimum requirements for student outcomes – a controversial area that could include standards on areas such as graduate employment – will be the subject of a separate further consultation in the autumn, the regulator said.

However, the new proposals are still likely to prompt concern in the sector around the definitions of the conditions and how they will be interpreted, such as equipping graduates with skills for career success.

Lord Wharton of Yarm, chair of the OfS, whose appointment earlier this year led to concerns over independence because he is a serving Conservative peer and a former MP, said the “proposals signal an important step change in the way the OfS regulates quality and standards.

“They set out clearly the requirements we consider necessary to protect the significant investment of students and taxpayers in higher education. They also provide the platform for us to intervene robustly and confidently where we see evidence of poor quality.

“Many universities and colleges offer excellent courses and protect standards. These proposals are not targeted at them, and they should experience minimal regulatory burden as a result.

“But we see too many examples that cause concern. Where our requirements aren’t being met, we will be unapologetic about using our statutory enforcement powers and explaining publicly the action we have taken.”

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said she welcomed the consultation, adding that the government was “clear this needs to lead to real results for students and universities”.

“This work will go hand in hand with our plans to consult on further reforms to the higher education system, which we will be setting out in more detail in due course.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Yet another nail in the coffin of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. English HE is now to all intents and purposes state-owned, state-run and state-controlled; responsibility lies with the institutions and power with the state. Nobody in their right minds would want to work in such an environment.
Just look at how compulsory school education and indeed further education has already been ruined by micromanagement by politically modivated individuals without the competence to justify their interference. It is necessary to reject any such meddling in higher education, even if what is currently proposed sounds reasonable (and indeed is what the vast majority of HE institutions do anyway). Think of the camel's nose... let that into your tent and before you know where you are the entire camel and all their family have taken up residence and eaten your cookies! Saying that most HE institutions already do what these yahoos demand also begs the question: why demand it when it is already being provided? Just another unnecessary burden of administrivia to waste time & effort better spent on providing education... Teach students how to think and how to learn, replace an empty mind with an open and enquiring one, and you have set them up for a successful, rewarding, and contributing life.

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