UUK kept critical report on English regulator under wraps

Paper warns that Office for Students must work to build ‘constructive dialogue’ and ‘assure itself’ that it meets legal requirements

December 5, 2019
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A highly critical, unpublished Universities UK report warns that the Office for Students needs to build “constructive dialogue” with universities and take action to become a “mature and effective regulator”, citing sector concerns about its “legalistic tone”.

The report on the transition to the OfS regime in England, seen by Times Higher Education, says that “the immediate OfS strategy of establishing a formal regulatory relationship with providers and the sector could come at the expense of its own regulatory capability and maturity in the medium and long term”.

The report, which THE understands has been seen within government, also says: “It is in the interests of all, including students, universities and the public, that the OfS is a mature and effective regulator that contributes to a high-quality higher education sector.

“To achieve this, Universities UK and the Association of Heads of University Administration are keen to work with the OfS to develop a constructive working relationship to facilitate effective OfS engagement with the sector, through which implementation of the regulatory framework can be enhanced.”

The report, written by UUK and AHUA and based on a survey of institutions, notes that as of June 2019, the OfS is “now legally required” to adhere to the Regulators’ Code, which includes a requirement for regulators to “carry out their activities in a way that supports those they regulate to comply and grow”.

“The sector has a role to play in sharing its insight, experience and knowledge to support the OfS in considering how it can assure itself that it is meeting the provisions of the Code,” adds the report.

Ministers are likely to be concerned if there is a perception that the OfS has a dysfunctional relationship with the universities it regulates, as they will want the regulator to have early awareness of any issues that have the potential to develop into high-profile problems.

Some suggest that UUK has toned down the concerns about the OfS aired in private by universities, as it seeks to work with the regulator to fix problems. The OfS’ chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, previously held the same role at UUK.

The organisation, which began operations in January 2018, was established by the Higher Education and Research Act as a student-centred, market regulator to accompany the advent of a funding system based mainly around student loans.

Some vice-chancellors have argued that the OfS has abandoned the tactics of informal, behind-the-scenes guidance often used by its predecessor organisation, the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The UUK report, titled The Transition to the Office for Students: the experience of higher education providers, says: “The survey responses suggest that the OfS has adopted a legalistic tone across all communication with institutions, reflecting the adoption of a consumer-regulator approach.”

While “such an approach is often appropriate” for a body with the OfS’ status, “there were feelings that this was not always helpful in ensuring communication was effective and clear”, it adds.

The report’s recommendations include a call for the OfS to “review the clarity and channels of its communications to institutions”. It also calls for “constructive dialogue between the OfS and the higher education sector”.

The OfS has been set the enormous task of assessing over 500 applications for its register of providers, a process it has previously described as “challenging, for the OfS and for providers”.

A UUK spokeswoman said: “This was a report based on a survey of our members. We have used this to support our own dialogue with the OfS on the implementation of the new regulatory regime in England.

“It was not published formally, but we did share it with our members to support the development of their own processes and practices under the new approach.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: UUK warns OfS must build ‘constructive dialogue’ in unpublished report

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