‘Virtually all’ universities risk OfS sanction under new rules

Concern that ‘prioritisation’ process for investigations opens up risk of political interference

February 1, 2022
Artist at tube station
Source: Getty
Well suited? the OfS will assess all universities on a range of metrics

Large numbers of English universities could potentially be hit with sanctions under plans to rate institutions on the proportion of graduates who go into professional jobs, amid concern about how courses will be singled out for scrutiny.

Under plans unveiled by the sector regulator, the Office for Students, 60 per cent of full-time first-degree students at every provider will be expected to go into “managerial or professional” employment or further study, as part of a range of institutional baselines covering issues such as continuation and completion. Institutions that fall short face the prospect of improvement notices, fines or – the ultimate threat – being stripped of access to student loan funding or of university title.

Early analysis by London Higher, which represents institutions in the capital, found that “virtually all” of its member campuses had at least one subject area with completion and progression outcomes below proposed OfS thresholds – with social sciences subjects faring worst.

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That could mean few institutions escaping some form of OfS scrutiny, and – significantly – institutions and subjects in London with the highest proportions of disadvantaged students were found to be most at risk.

“At least with respect to London, the OfS is going to have to tread a fine line, in its approach to regulation, between upholding quality and promoting social mobility,” said Richard Boffey, head of AccessHE at London Higher. “We’d be astonished if the picture were any different outside of the capital.”

The OfS will use the Graduate Outcomes survey, taken 15 months after the end of a course, to judge whether students are in managerial or professional employment, defined as jobs within groups 1 to 3 of the Office for National Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classification 2020 (SOC).

But there are concerns that this will unfairly penalise creative arts subjects. Another notable example of an employment field falling outside SOC groups 1 to 3 is “senior care workers”.

David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, pointed out that the ONS job categories underwent revision only every 10 years – with early years education and nursing examples of careers upgraded to “professional” only in 2020.

“There is a big battle still to come over the whole area of social care” in employment and training terms, with “evidence from research programmes…increasingly showing that good quality care delivered by well-educated people makes a big difference to outcomes,” said Professor Green. “However, all this care work is classified in SOC 4, which won’t count as ‘graduate employment’ in the new OfS consultation,” meaning the regulator’s plans would create “a great disincentive to institutions to invest in this vital area of work”.

John Cater, vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University, said he was concerned that the progression metric could be a “sledgehammer, and not always well targeted”. He argued for “a more nuanced approach and a better understanding and acceptance of what we need – STEM graduates, yes, but also those in public service, in the arts”.

In a change to its initial plans, the OfS has said it will consider institutions’ “context” if they fall below baselines, including variation in outcomes “for different types of students and courses”.

And the regulator will make judgements via a “prioritisation” process about which institutions falling below the baselines merit further investigation and, ultimately, punishment – which may open up concerns in the sector about potential political influence by ministers or the targeting of subjects criticised in the press.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said: “The phrase ‘regulatory judgement’ appears in several places in the OfS proposals.”

While he was not advocating a metrics-only approach, he did think it would be “important for the OfS to spell out the rationale when it makes such judgements”, plus that it is “seen to be even-handed and that the prioritisation process each year encompasses institutions across the sector”.



Print headline: ‘Virtually all’ universities at risk of OfS sanction under new rules

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Reader's comments (4)

Every process that has the objective of "ranking" things in an order of "priority" will have its critics, especially true where the results will affect funding. The Government has chosen "managerial or professional employment status and further study" as the most important outcomes sought. As a nod / "let out clause" to the Universities, "further study" will be critical - watch out for massive growth in students taking a second undergraduate course (at the same or a differnt University) and a rise in the number of taught post graduates and, in time, targets of 60% success to be achieved in all lifelong learning. The chosen measuring toll is to be "... jobs within groups 1 to 3 of the Office for National Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classification 2020 (SOC)." but as highlighted above, this is going to cause problems. Looking backwards is not the answer when over 30% of the jobs that current graduates will go into are not yet on the list and given that "the ONS job categories underwent revision only every 10 years – with early years education and nursing examples of careers upgraded to “professional” only in 2020". Wiil the new police constable degree fail to get offered by enough Universities? Are all the Apprenticeship degrees included in the list? The chosen measurement tool needs to be changed unless we want to go backwards. Universities and the ONS must be forward looking and update the key categories every year.
I find this a strange choice of metric. surely the government is more responsible for the availabiltiy of graduate level jobs, not the universities. Universities enable students to obtain the skills needed, but if there are no jobs, or no jobs where the graduates can afford to live, then that is a policy failure not a university failure.
Once again, more encroachments from the universal corporatization of the universities. see Chomsky: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/03/the-death-of-american-universities/
If they want to take an outcomes-based approach, why don't they use Student Loan repayment data? To put it crudely, if after 3 or 5 years, large numbers of students from a programme are not paying back student loans, then they will know the programme is not producing the sort of earners they want. But before they start closing programmes and bullying students and universities into doing nothing but STEM, they should at least let students study what they want, but produce easy-to-access information on income outcomes for courses. Not everyone will be interested, but if students know that learning a subject at such-and-such an institution is unlikely to result in riches but they still want to do it, then isn't it rather controlling and depressing to not let them? My English teacher at school in the 1980s used to go on about how miserable it must be for us being young in Thatcher's Britain and how much better it was for him growing up the 1960s. Now, here I am, looking at a generation of young people facing debt and having all the fun sucked out of their university life by COVID. Do we really need even less personal control and choice for young people?


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