Transparency call as English regulator keeps key papers secret

Office for Students makes nearly two-third of board papers ‘exempt from publication’ at latest board meeting

September 3, 2018
Source: Alamy

England’s new regulator has been urged to be more transparent about key sector issues after keeping almost two-thirds of board papers confidential at its last board meeting.

The Office for Students, which the government created to be a “student champion”, designated eight of 13 board papers “exempt from publication” at its meeting on 26 July.

These included a document on “OfS and mature students’ access and participation”, which the organisation said was exempt from publication as a “policy in development”, with the exemption to be reviewed in January 2019.

Also kept confidential were the OfS’ equality and diversity statement, the first-quarter financial report and a paper on “guidance for managing potential conflicts of interest”.

The OfS also kept under wraps a paper on an “institutional issue – risk update and options”, which was deemed to be “commercially sensitive information”. Many would see this is an understandable exemption given the potential harm to the institution of disclosing any issues in this area.

At previous board meetings, items kept confidential included reports on vital sector issues such as “VC pay strategy” and the “OfS framework for managing market exit”.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, the OfS’ predecessor organisation, frequently made board papers on sector issues exempt from publication. However, the government created the OfS as a different kind of body from Hefce, with the intent that it would have more distance from the sector and act as a market-style regulator.

The government and the OfS have previously attracted criticism for not including on the board a representative of the National Union of Students.

Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president (higher education), said: “If the OfS is to work in the interests of students, it must be as transparent as it possibly can be and put students at its heart, while making clear how it is going to set out its ambitions to tackle the big higher education issues in this country.”

A University and College Union spokesman agreed that transparency was crucial. “Universities’ lack of transparency over senior pay and perks has been damaging. If the sector is to regain credibility, the new watchdog needs to take the lead and strike the right balance between confidentiality and transparency,” he said.

The July board meeting was the fourth held by the OfS since it begun operations in January. At the first two, more board papers were published than were exempted from publication. But the balance between items published and exempt from publication became even at the May meeting, before tilting in favour of confidentiality at the July meeting.

An OfS spokesman said that the organisation had “a presumption towards publication and [we] only exempt papers when there is a need to do so”.

“As a new organisation, as you would expect, we have a large number of policies that are in development – it’s not appropriate to publish emerging thinking. As a regulator, we also need to deal with some issues that are commercially sensitive,” he said.

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