‘Ofsted for universities’ seen as ‘last resort’ in quality drive

Tory manifesto pledge brings questions over Office for Students’ future approach on quality - and whether it is right organisation to judge

January 27, 2020
Source: Getty

If the new Conservative government requires the Office for Students, the English sector regulator, to be much tougher with universities following the party’s manifesto pledge to tackle “low quality” courses, big changes may be coming.

But how would “low quality” be judged and is the OfS – which has increasingly fraught relations with universities – the right organisation to do the judging in its current form?

Some in the sector pose the question of whether the government and OfS could consider introducing university inspections to monitor quality, creating an “Ofsted for universities”, a higher education equivalent of the organisation that inspects schools, which would be viewed by universities as an attack on their autonomy.

Meanwhile, others in the sector say that ministers have noted the strained relations between the OfS and the institutions it regulates as a potential problem.

And there are also suggestions that the OfS may be being viewed with disfavour by some at senior levels within government, as an example of supposedly damaging bureaucracy.

However, for now, the OfS remains the only means at the government’s disposal to implement the Tory manifesto pledge to “continue to explore ways to tackle the problem of…low quality courses”.

An “Ofsted for universities” regime could “come to be seen as needed if the major issue of low-quality provision isn’t tackled”, said Iain Mansfield, head of education, skills and science at the Policy Exchange thinktank and a former special adviser to Jo Johnson in his second spell as universities minister. “But at the end of the day, I think it would be a last resort and it would be quite undesirable for our sector.”

Mr Mansfield, who was responsible for development of the teaching excellence framework as a senior civil servant in the Department for Education, said that “poor quality provision” can already be identified via existing measures: dropout rates, the TEF and graduate employment data, as well as figures on grade inflation and unconditional offers.

The subject review system, in which each university department was inspected in a 10-year cycle, was scrapped in 2001. The system of regular institutional review by the Quality Assurance Agency has also been abandoned, replaced by a risk-based system under the OfS.

Are inspections for universities talked about in government?

“I would say there are mixed views on that,” Mr Mansfield replied. “We have had inspections before under the old subject review regime and they ended up being abolished.

“I would come back down to: if the Office for Students thinks there is poor quality provision…why doesn’t it take action on the basis of what [powers] it has already? And there could be much more significant action being taken than there has been to date.”

Mr Johnson, the minister who introduced the TEF, argued that the assessment – based on metrics around student satisfaction, progression and graduate employment, as well as institutional submissions – was the best method to “inform” decisions on quality and value for money. It was far better than “quick and dirty” alternatives such as relying solely on graduate earnings data, he said.

However, some in the sector think that using the TEF to restrict funding for “low quality” courses could leave the door open to legal challenges from universities, as the exercise relies on data from several years prior.

An independent review of the TEF has reported to the government, but is yet to be published. One key issue to be addressed is whether TEF moves to a subject-level exercise – the plan advocated by Mr Johnson.

Asked about the Tory manifesto commitment to address “low quality” courses, Mr Johnson argued that “the sector would be wise to work with the TEF as something that can inform these kinds of decisions over low quality and value for money. Because at least it’s holistic, at least it gives universities an opportunity to [submit] provider submissions and to argue the case for the distinctiveness of what they do.”

He also said: “The risk that the sector always ran in opposing measures that attempted to capture the value of courses and the value of university teaching was that they would end up getting a very quick and dirty measure imposed on them – for example, just reliant on graduate earnings.”

Dave Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said that “irrespective of the Conservative manifesto”, over the next year to two years “I think there will be a need for OfS to have a bit of a reset and reflect” on “its reach and the effectiveness of its approach”.

“I don’t see much discussion any more of co-regulation” between regulator and sector, which leaves “less opportunity than there was to work collectively on future enhancements”, he added.

Last year Lambeth College joined the LSBU Group – and further education colleges are inspected by Ofsted.

Asked about the idea of an “Ofsted for universities”, Professor Phoenix said: “I don’t think that’s an immediate threat. I cannot see OfS sending in people to sit in classrooms in Oxbridge.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Universities Ofsted seen as ‘last resort’

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Reader's comments (2)

Does the OfS have the competence to judge if a university course is of high or low quality? I don't think that they do... this is why things like the TEF exist. This of course has the important quality of being a dialogue, where each university showcases what it feels worthy of note. Compare that to the high-handed and unhelpful approach of OFSTED - having taught in FE before slithering into HE, and having been a school governor, I am well aware how little said organisation contributes towards a quality education in any establishment they inspect... and a major flaw in their process is that there is no mechanism to challenge their opinions. Maybe the Higher Education Academy would be a more appropriate organisation to assess what universities deliver?
Higher education policies from the 1990s 'coming home to roost'.

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