OfS intervened over ‘abuses’ amid sector reputation fears

Regulator’s former chair also says fears ‘half a dozen or more’ institutions would collapse in pandemic were averted via its support

March 7, 2023

The Office for Students intervened with a university to head off “clear reputational risk” and “abuses”, but did so behind the scenes to avoid “damage to the whole sector”, according to the regulator's former chair. In doing so, and with government support, it averted fears that half a dozen or more institutions would collapse in the pandemic, he told peers.

Sir Michael Barber, who was the regulator’s first chair before stepping down in 2021, was giving evidence to the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee as it opened an inquiry into the OfS, after concerns were expressed by universities that the regulator had not maintained its independence from government and had infringed on university autonomy.

Sir Michael defended the regulator’s work behind the scenes.

“There was one university where there were clear reputational risks being taken – abuses, I would say. And we sorted that out. We didn’t make a big public thing of it; we could have done, but we didn’t, because we didn’t want to damage the whole sector,” he said.

University autonomy was crucial, but “you can’t choose to be bad; you can’t choose to be corrupt and so on”, Sir Michael said.

Nicola Dandridge, the former OfS chief executive who also gave evidence, said the government had given the regulator “a very strong steer to do away with the National Student Survey”.

Resisting that was “an example of where the OfS can and does manifest its independence”, she said.

The OfS had to “fight that battle quite hard, but always behind the scenes”, Sir Michael told the committee.

He said that the OfS had resisted pressure from Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the former universities minister, to cap vice-chancellors’ pay at £150,000, because it would have infringed on university autonomy and harmed the ability to recruit leaders in a global market. “We put pressure on the system to account for v-c pay, but we didn’t say there’s a cap,” added Sir Michael.

Russell Group vice-chancellors told him that “you don’t pick many fights with the government”, he said. But to do so publicly would not have been good “for the stewardship of the sector”, he argued.

Sir Michael also called for a focus on monitoring sector funding, in light of concerns about the reliance on overseas student fees to subsidise research. “What you don’t want – to coin a phrase from the 19th century – is to lose a great university system in a fit of absence of mind.”

Asked whether there was too high a degree of direction from ministers in frequent guidance letters to the OfS, Sir Michael said: “I personally think they [the letters] are a bit overdetailed.”

He recalled an education White Paper having been described as like a skip into which everyone in the Department for Education had dumped their ideas. “Some of those [ministerial] letters feel a little bit like that,” Sir Michael said.

On support for universities in the pandemic, he said: “We thought at the beginning there might be half a dozen or more institutions that would go under financially during that time. It didn’t happen thanks to help from the Treasury, the DfE and what we were doing.”

Sir Michael also discussed seeing the OfS’ role as “steward” for a world-leading university sector, and how it had to set out its own priorities after its formation – on access, for example – amid political instability and a succession of changing ministers, without “waiting for some sense of direction”.

The relationship with universities had at first been “uneasy” because some universities had “hankered after the funding council relationship”, Sir Michael said. But as a regulator “we weren’t going to be the funding council”, he added.


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Reader's comments (2)

"There was one university where there were clear reputational risks being taken" - name and shame
Can not help but wonder if the university taking such risks was a household name and that is why they felt it would have impact on the reputation of the sector and have not named and shamed. Also wonder if the university in question is actually any better now than it was, did the intervention have sustainable impact? If not then surely more action from the OfS would be forthcoming. To not do so would do more harm to the sector in the long run.