Plan to legislate on ‘low-quality’ courses alarms sector

Government says it will give OfS powers to enforce ‘minimum expectations of quality’ before regulator responds to consultation on plan

May 17, 2021

The Westminster government sprang a surprise by announcing that it will legislate to give the Office for Students new powers to enforce “minimum expectations of quality” – before the English regulator has responded to a consultation with the sector on the controversial plan.

The government’s apparent jumping of the gun could add to sector concerns about the extent to which it may expect the Office for Students to follow its lead under new chair Lord Wharton of Yarm, a former Conservative MP and serving party peer.

Last year, the OfS opened a consultation on plans to change the way it assesses standards, which it said would tackle “low quality” provision, a frequent target for the government.

The plans drew fierce criticism from Universities UK and other groups for including the introduction of an absolute numerical baseline on student and graduate outcomes by course – looking at rates for continuation, completion and progression to “managerial and professional” jobs – assessed without taking into account the way student social background differs across different institutions.

The consultation has closed, but the OfS is yet to respond.

However, when the Queen’s Speech on 11 May set out the government’s legislative plans for the coming parliamentary session, the issue was dealt with in the outline of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill.

Briefing notes on the bill published by the government said that the legislation would “strengthen the powers of the Office for Students to take action to address low quality higher education provision” and also ensure the OfS can “regulate in line with minimum expectations of quality”.

Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and a former adviser to Conservative universities ministers, said: “It is worrying to see the new skills bill talking about addressing ‘low quality’ higher education provision before the concept of ‘low quality’ has even been formally defined.”

UUK said in its consultation response that it had “significant concerns about the proposals”, warning that “a potential unintended consequence is that providers are deterred from recruiting students who might be considered more at risk of not continuing, completing, or progressing to the stated level of employment”.

London Higher said in its response that the plan “risks reversing progress made in increasing access and participation for underrepresented student groups” and the organisation would “implore [ministers] to reconsider this proposal”.

Some think the government and OfS plans are focused mainly on alternative providers and driven by the regulator’s response to a legal challenge brought by the for-profit Bloomsbury Institute, which argued that the regulator had not taken account of its student demographic in withdrawing student loan access over quality concerns.

But others fear that the outcomes measure could be used as a “back-door student number control”, pressuring universities to stop recruiting on courses close to the baseline.

“A regulator that is serious about promoting fairness in the system should stand firm in the face of this bill and not be swayed to implement measures to limit student choice before full consideration and due process has taken place,” Dr Beech said.

In his first speech, delivered to a UUK members’ meeting on 13 May, Lord Wharton may have made some universities nervous when he said: “Most universities and other higher education providers offer good quality provision. Many will comfortably outperform any numerical baselines we set – and will see regulatory burden fall as a result. But, where standards slip we stand ready to intervene.”

An OfS spokesman said: “We’re still considering consultation responses and will publish outcomes of the consultation in due course.”

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