by Rob Cuthbert, SRHE News Editor
The House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee has decided to investigate the OfS. The Committee, with a remit “to consider matters relating to industry, including the policies of His Majesty’s Government to promote industrial growth, skills and competitiveness, and to scrutinise the work of UK regulators”, published 12 questions on which it invited evidence. The first three questions nail it:
- Are the OfS’ statutory duties clear and appropriate? How successful has the OfS been in performing these duties, and have some duties been prioritised over others?
- How closely does the OfS’ regulatory framework adhere to its statutory duties? How has this framework developed over time, and what impacts has this had on higher education providers?
- What is the nature of the relationship between the OfS and the Government? Does this strike the right balance between providing guidance and maintaining regulatory independence?
Michael Salmon, News Editor for Wonkhe, said on 3 March 2023: “This is much of what sector groups have been calling for, and reflects concerns raised in OfS’ recently published review of its engagement with universities.” The HE sector’s ‘mission groups’, memorably labelled ‘gangs’ by the late David Watson, wrote collectively to the new Education Select Committee chair Robin Walker on 16 January 2023 to ask for a proper review of the Office for Students: “… there is growing concern that the OfS is not implementing a fully risk-based approach, that it is not genuinely independent and that it is failing to meet standards that we would expect from the Regulators’ Code.”
The concerns are not limited to people within the sector. Ian Mansfield, now at Policy Exchange, former special adviser in the DfE to Gavin Williamson and Michele Donelan, wrote for Times Higher Education on 16 February 2023 complaining that “The OfS has thus far failed to live up to the ambition of its creators to be light-touch and proportionate. … However, universities must take their share of responsibility. Despite being part of a mass participation system, receiving significant taxpayer funding, too many do not accept the basic fact that they should be regulated.” Lawyer Smita Jamdar of Shakespeare Martineau tweeted: “I come across v few institutions who resist being regulated. I come across more who are unhappy about the lack of pretty basic safeguards for procedural fairness. People like Mansfield who have egged the OfS on to rush to start investigations carry some (much?) of the blame.” She then wrote in Times Higher Education on 8 March 2023 that “the Office for Students’ published approach to monitoring the risk of breaches of registration conditions demonstrates that it lacks basic safeguards around transparency, fairness and accountability.” Sometimes if you are attacked from all sides you might be in the right place, but the OfS will struggle to argue that case: consider those three questions from the Lords Committee.
Are the OfS’ statutory duties clear and appropriate? How successful has the OfS been in performing these duties, and have some duties been prioritised over others?
This goes to the heart of the statute establishing the OfS, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA). HERA explicitly aimed to institutionalise a market for higher education because former Universities Minister David Willetts believed that market competition would ‘drive up quality’. One of his successors Jo Johnson continued in that mistaken but fervently held belief as he steered HERA to become law. However the ‘disruptive’ innovators encouraged as new entrants have mostly created more problems than solutions, despite some small but distinctive successes like the Dyson Institute.
There is no space here to explore the failure of this kind of market, but one repeated motif in policy pronouncements before and since might be summarised as ‘Why won’t they do what we want?’. The answer is not that universities resist regulation (though some may do) but, more surprisingly, is that ‘You can’t buck the market’. There has always been intense competition between HE providers, for reputation and for the things which flow from that – students and research income – but often the competition is not overtly financial. Policymakers failed to understand institutional realities then, and even more so now. Policymakers introduced £9000 fees in the mistaken belief that a spectrum of fees would emerge reflecting quality differences. Anyone in any university could have told them, as many did, then that no self-respecting university would charge less than £9000, for the real reputational fear of declaring ‘low’ quality. The Higher Education Funding Council for England no doubt did advise just that, but HEFCE was of course abolished by HERA. Now we have a regulator which seems as ill-informed about institutional realities as policymakers continue to be.
Institutions actually respond rapidly to market forces and regulatory threats. At one end of the market, conditional unconditional offers by some universities were a predictable and rational response to accentuated competition for students. A combination of shame and regulatory threat forced their abandonment. At the other end, the declining real income from home undergraduate students drives expansion of international student numbers with higher fees at the same time as well-qualified home applicants are rejected – a saga which is yet to play out but may have toxic consequences for government. And there are growing lacunae of provision in some geographical areas and in some subjects, as market behaviour which makes sense for institutions delivers irrational distribution of provision across the country. This is market failure – because we have the wrong kind of legally-enacted market, and the wrong kind of regulation. The OfS’s duties may be clear, but they are not appropriate.
How closely does the OfS’ regulatory framework adhere to its statutory duties? How has this framework developed over time, and what impacts has this had on higher education providers?
Andrew Sentance (Cambridge Econometrics) argued in The Times on 14 February 2023 that there has been a broad failure of regulation since privatisation and it was time for a complete overhaul. The OfS may be an example, but it is probably untypical because it was so likely to fail. The history of OfS deserves to be written as a case study in regulatory failure, and one chapter will surely start with former Director of Fair Access Les Ebdon’s accurate prediction that “I can tell you exactly what the OfS will do. It will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do.” OfS shortcomings were at first masked by the skills and knowledge of its first chair, Sir Michael Barber, and first CEO Nicola Dandridge. Barber had been in and around government and HE for many years, and though not popular in HE was deeply thoughtful and knowledgeable both about the sector’s performance and about the nature of regulation. Dandridge had been CEO of Universities UK with a broad appreciation of the contribution of the whole range of the HE sector. They were respected and trusted, or at least given the benefit of any doubt, as they sought to respond to the growing range of issues which the government laid at the door of the OfS, now including unexplained grade inflation, harassment and sexual misconduct, mental health and well-being, freedom of speech and increasing the diversity of provision.
The shortcomings of the OfS might even have been overcome through evolutionary change, but the government, with Gavin Williamson then still Secretary of State for Education, doubled down on its earlier mistakes when it replaced Barber and Dandridge (see below), destroying the relationship between the OfS and the sector as it struck entirely the wrong balance for a supposedly independent regulator.
What is the nature of the relationship between the OfS and the Government? Does this strike the right balance between providing guidance and maintaining regulatory independence?
The notes to the 2017 Act say: “This Act creates a new non-departmental public body, the Office for Students (OfS), as the main regulatory body, operating at arm’s length from Government, and with statutory powers to regulate providers of higher education in England.” (emphasis added). It was rumoured that Barber sought a second term as OfS chair but was denied. Former UUK chair Sir Ivor Crewe (former VC, Essex) was interviewed, as Sonia Sodha and James Tapper reported for The Observer on 14 February 2021: “Perhaps it was the long passage in Professor Sir Ivor Crewe’s book The Blunders of Our Governments about the way ministers’ mistakes never catch up with them that led Gavin Williamson to reject the expert as the new head of the Office for Students. Or maybe the education secretary was put off by the section of the 2013 book, written with the late Anthony King, dealing with how ministers put underqualified, inexperienced people in charge of public bodies. The job of independent regulator of higher education in England was instead handed to James Wharton, a 36-year-old former Tory MP with no experience in higher education who ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.”
The Education Select Committee questioned Lord Wharton of Yarm on 5 February 2021 and endorsed his appointment, which was announced by OfS on 8 February 2021. Rob Merrick reported for The Independent on 2 February 2021 that Lord Wharton had been subject to ‘hard questioning’, in the course of which he said he didn’t see why he could not retain the whip, nor why his role as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager should raise any conflict of interest issues. So the ‘independent’ regulator was to have a partisan chair who would retain the government whip. Conflict of interest issues raised themselves almost immediately, as Lord Wharton was revealed to be a paid adviser to a company seeking to build a cable connection through land at the University of Portsmouth, which had also made donations to several Conservative MPs.
Wharton’s appointment was greeted with incredulity in HE, but with no signs of embarrassment on his part; he even brazenly secured the appointment of Rachel Houchen, the wife of a friend and political colleague, to the OfS Board, which has just two people with extensive and current HE institutional experience, one from Oxford and one from UCL. Chris Parr of Research Professional News elicited the surprising information from the OfS on 13 March 2023 that the OfS Chair has only visited five universities since his appointment more than 2 years ago – Nottingham, King’s College London, Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam University and The Engineering and Design Institute in London.
OfS, ‘having regard to ministers’ as statute demands, started to leave HE realities behind. DfE wrote frequent letters to the OfS and the OfS jumped to respond. An OfS consultation document issued on 26 March 2021 put into practice the ‘instructions’ received earlier from Secretary of State Gavin Williamson, proposing to steer more funds to STEM subjects and, among other things, halve additional funding for performing arts, media studies and archaeology courses. WonkHE’s David Kernohan gave his critical analysis on the same day. OfS announced on 30 March 2021 that after the first phase of a review of the NSS, commissioned by Universities Minister Michele Donelan, there would be ‘major changes’ including dropping all references to ‘student satisfaction’. Consistent reports that 85% or more of students in most universities are satisfied with their experience would be embarrassing for a government determined to prove otherwise.
Not a buffer, an irregulator
In the past funding councils were statutorily responsible for in effect providing a buffer between HE and government, to regulate excesses on either side. There is no danger of ‘provider capture’ now that the arm’s-length relationship with government has such short arms. However the limitations of the OfS are being increasingly exposed, not least by the remaining Lords Committee questions, especially No 4: Does the OfS have sufficient powers, resources and expertise to meet its duties? How has its expertise been affected by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s decision not to continue as the OfS’ Designated Quality Body?
The QAA withdrew as DQB because the OfS expectations were incompatible with QAA’s broader remit and international roles and indeed the requirements of the European Association for Quality Assurance (ENQA) – which makes it unlikely that an international provider in Europe would agree to take its place as DQB. The OfS as ‘interim’ quality body has lived up to its threat to put ‘boots on the ground’; even though repeated tweaks of its Key Performance Measures have not yet produced any persuasive identification of ‘low quality courses’.
Nor has OfS shown that it will take any notice of widespread HE opinion, as UUK’s Charlotte Snelling reported in despair in her Wonkhe blog on 31 October 2022. On 9 March 2023 OfS announced a consultation on how it should have its investigations funded. The OfS has powers to make such charges following orders laid in Parliament only in December 2022, and “This consultation is not seeking views on the powers that the Regulations give the OfS or whether we should seek to recover the costs of our investigations. We are also not seeking views on matters relating to the OfS’s approach to monitoring registered providers, which may lead to us opening or conducting investigations.” The OfS plans to recover all staff and other costs attributable to the investigation, which it is entitled to do by those orders. It is a sham ‘consultation’, since it is clear what is intended and it is wholly predictable that the OfS will do almost exactly what is proposed.
The role of buffer was condemned as ‘backward-looking’ by Jo Johnson in his recent evidence to the Lords Committee; for good measure he also described QAA as a legacy from a previous era, even though he made clear the undesirability of OfS being more than an interim quality body. But we might at least expect the OfS to show some understanding and appreciation of the difficulties which institutions face, especially with rapidly declining levels of real income from tuition fees. Instead OfS put its fees up by 13%: Gloucestershire VC Stephen Marston, a former senior civil servant who also worked in HEFCE, said in Times Higher Education on 16 January 2023 that the increase was unacceptable. John Morgan reported in THE on the same day that the ‘shameful’ 13% rise would push the largest universities’ fees above £200,000. OfS chief executive Susan Lapworth blogged shamelessly on 26 January 2023 about how OfS plans to ‘refresh its engagement’ with universities and other providers.
To sum up, in the words of Paul Ashwin (Lancaster) and former Secretary of State Charles Clarke:
“Overall, we have a situation in which the OfS has become more interventionist to protect ‘the student interest’, apparently as defined by ministers and certain sections of the media, while its expertise to understand what such interventions involve has fallen significantly. Moreover, it is very unclear what forms of intervention the OfS considers could be effective in changing university behaviours in the desired direction. Together, these points represent a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the OfS as a regulator.”
Effective regulation in higher education depends on the willing, or at least grudging, consent of the regulated, but that consent has been deliberately dismantled. Instead the Office for Students is collapsing in an orgy of partisanship and wilful disregard for the real interests of higher education and its students.
Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @RobCuthbert