OfS to tackle entry ‘inducements’ and ‘misleading’ marketing

English regulator’s chief executive sets out priorities for year ahead, including admissions and recruitment review

December 19, 2019

The Office for Students will consider raising its quality requirements to tackle “poor provision”, address the use of clearing “inducements” by English universities in its forthcoming admissions review and intervene over “misleading claims” in marketing to applicants.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the regulator, outlined the organisation’s plans for the year ahead as it published its first annual review.

The review says that overall student satisfaction is high as measured by the National Student Survey, teaching quality is “impressive” according to the teaching excellence framework and graduate earnings figures showed “the long-term benefits of a university education”.

But the review also shows that English universities have “serious issues that need to be addressed”, Ms Dandridge told journalists.

Students raise the issue of course quality and support “time and time again” in conversations with her and “not always in a positive way”, she said. “We’re particularly concerned that students, disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, may be recruited inappropriately on to poor quality courses and not given the support they need,” she said.

The OfS has already refused registration for eight providers – all for-profit or further education colleges rather than universities – where it had concerns about quality.

In terms of the OfS’ year ahead, Ms Dandridge said that there would be three priority areas.

First, in tackling teaching quality and “poor provision”, Ms Dandridge said: “We are going to be consulting on raising our requirements so they become progressively more demanding and using our regulatory powers to require providers to improve pockets of weak provision.”

In the registration process, the OfS sets baselines for indicators including continuation, completion and employment.

Second, the OfS will launch a review of recruitment and admissions in the new year, as previously indicated when the government requested the review in April. The review will report later in 2020.

This review will address issues including “entrenched gaps” in access for poorer students, particularly at high-tariff providers, along with unconditional and “conditional unconditional” offers, Ms Dandridge said.

She also said that it would address “concerns about the use of financial offers and inducements being made to prospective students going through the clearing process”.

Third, the OfS will focus on “improving the quality of information that applicants receive”, Ms Dandridge said. She added: “We’re going to be working with the Advertising Standards Agency and others to intervene when universities make misleading claims, to ensure that students and consumers are protected.”

The ASA has previously upheld a number of complaints against universities.

Pressed by reporters on concrete examples of inappropriate entry “inducements”, Ms Dandridge would not highlight specific cases. However, it is understood that the OfS is particularly concerned about the use of “clearing bursaries” or “clearing scholarships”.

Discussing the admissions review, Ms Dandridge said that it would look at issues including “the reliability of predicted grades”.

The OfS was going into this review “very much with an open mind”, does not have “a fixed idea of what the outcomes will look like” and wants to take advice from students, teachers and universities, she added.

The review will “test whether or not the current admissions system is still fit for purpose given the very different environment we’re operating in now, a much more competitive environment”, Ms Dandridge said.

Taking action on admissions “could affect exams, could affect schools. This is quite a complex issue,” she added.

Asked if legislation would be needed to address the problems under consideration in the review, or whether the OfS had all the powers it needs, Ms Dandridge said: “No, we don’t have all the powers. And no, I don’t think we’re anticipating that legislation is required.” She added: “It’s a question of working out a sensible way forward and then working with different stakeholders to see how we can make it work.”

On the issue of tackling unconditional offers in the admissions review, Ms Dandridge said “the issue is not a lack of powers, it’s making sure we are making robust and rigorous, evidence-based decisions. I don’t think we are looking for more powers in that area.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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