Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS)

England’s universities and colleges have a deservedly world class reputation, but their future success requires robust regulation where poor quality practices are letting students down, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS) said today (19 Dec) as she launched the regulator’s first annual review.

The review offers a wide-ranging assessment of the higher education sector in England. In her commentary for the review, Ms Dandridge notes that higher education in England is “outstanding by many measures”, citing high levels of student satisfaction, excellent teaching and learning, and higher salaries for graduates:

“In this first 18 months of OfS’s existence, I have seen many examples of this outstanding higher education provision. I have read ambitious and credible access and participation plans, and seen at first hand the commitment of universities and colleges to tackle entrenched disadvantage, not least the unacceptable gaps in attainment for students from minority ethnic backgrounds.”

However, she also says that the sector’s reputation cannot be taken for granted and it should not prevent poor quality provision being acknowledged and addressed:

“It is simply wrong to suggest that criticism of poor-quality provision and poor outcomes for students, when appropriate and evidenced, amounts to disloyalty that will damage the reputation of English higher education. Indeed, the reality is exactly the opposite: saying that everything is perfect in every university and college, when it plainly is not, is dishonest and corrosive, and ultimately will do more damage by undermining trust and confidence.

“More to the point, it is not in the interest of students. The OfS seeks to be honest about the experience students receive, however uncomfortable that may be. That is our job. In this, we take our cue from the principles that underpin the institutions we regulate: universities are places of intellectual exploration and, above all, honest enquiry. By drawing attention to the evidence, and to areas of concern as well as outstanding strength, we aim to offer challenge, support and opportunity for improvement that will make our exceptionally strong higher education sector even stronger.”

In the past year, the OfS has highlighted a number of concerns, including unexplained grade inflation, inappropriate use of unconditional offers and stubborn gaps in achieving equality of opportunity in higher education.

Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the Office for Students, says in his foreword to the annual review:

“The area where, above all, the OfS wants to see the most rapid and radical improvement is in securing greater equity in the access and participation of students. We have seen in this year’s access and participation plans a welcome shift in ambition and commitment. But this laudable commitment will need to translate quickly into results. The challenge now is to change the facts on the ground.

“Over the last year the OfS has also intervened in a range of areas where we hope the higher education sector will take decisive action itself, in order to avoid further regulatory intervention. Neither unexplained grade inflation or the injudicious use of unconditional offers serves the interest of current, future or recent students. Furthermore, these are the kinds of issues that threaten to undermine the high levels of credibility and public confidence that our universities and colleges enjoy. This is why the OfS will not hesitate to act where there is clear evidence of practices that fail to serve the student or the public interest.”

Within the OfS’s broad agenda, Ms Dandridge highlights three key issues that the OfS will pay particular attention to in the year ahead:

  1. Admissions and recruitment
  2. Quality of information for prospective students, and
  3. Improving the quality of teaching and courses

To address the first of these issues, the OfS plans to launch a review of the admissions system.

Ms Dandridge says:

“To the extent that the existing system is not serving students’ needs in a fair, transparent and inclusive way, it must change, and we will consult widely with students, schools, providers and others to understand their views and perspectives.

“We will also consider ways of addressing increasing concerns about some student recruitment practices. Students can be offered enticements and inducements which are often not in their best interests, at a time when they may be especially vulnerable. In particular, we will continue closely to monitor the impact of the damaging growth of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers that require students to commit to a particular course.”

Reforming admissions practices is one way of addressing entrenched gaps in access and participation in higher education which, historically, universities and colleges have been too slow to address.

Ms Dandridge continues:

“What we have seen in the past is ‘slow but steady’ improvement. The trouble is that slow and steady is too slow when people’s livelihoods and opportunities are at stake. That is why we are now looking for a radical improvement in progress.

“There is work to do to dispel wider, persistent myths and misperceptions about access and participation: that universities and colleges cannot be expected to compensate for poor schooling and wider social inequalities; that contextual admissions are unfair; that disadvantaged students will always do less well in their degrees. Research shows that if students from disadvantaged backgrounds are helped to make the right choice of what and where to study, and given the support that they need during their time in higher education, they can end up performing just as well as, if not better than, their more privileged peers.”

The second of three issues identified by Ms Dandridge as priorities for the year ahead is improving the quality and reliability of information available for prospective students:

“Providers registered with the OfS must demonstrate that the information on their websites and marketing materials is accurate and accessible. At a time when questions are being asked, and concerns raised, about the value of a higher education degree, it is more important than ever that students are able to make informed choices about what and where to study based on clear, correct information. There can be no place for false and misleading advertising in how universities sell themselves to prospective students, or a lack of clarity about their rights.

“We cannot have a situation where students’ expectations are raised unrealistically before they go to university, only to be dashed when they get there. Such marketing is clearly within the scope of consumer protection law, and we will act swiftly and decisively where we find evidence of breach.”

The third priority identified is how universities, colleges and other higher education providers address concerns identified by the new regulatory system – particularly the quality of teaching and courses. Ms Dandridge says:

“As our attention turns to regulating the providers we have now registered, we now plan to use our regulatory tools to support improved quality of teaching and courses. We plan to consult on whether our requirements for quality are sufficiently demanding to ensure that all students receive a good education. 

“We set numerical baselines for indicators such as continuation, completion and employment as part of our assessment of the outcomes delivered for students. Our view is that a minimum level of performance should be delivered for all students, regardless of their background or what and where they study.  We will consult on raising these baselines so that they are progressively more demanding and using our regulatory powers to require providers to improve pockets of weak provision.”

Chris Skidmore 100x100Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said:

“Our higher education sector is world-leading, but pockets of unacceptable poor practice harm its reputation and demonstrate the need for robust regulation.

“We set up the Office for Students to hold institutions that aren’t delivering for students to account, and have given them a range of powers to take action - including financial penalties or deregistration in the most serious cases.

“I look forward to the OfS building on these foundations, and welcome its ambition to go further in protecting and improving the quality of higher education in England.”

OfS data shows that students with unconditional offers are more likely to drop out of university, see more here . This year, the OfS published an Insight brief  which explored whether unconditional offers were serving the interests of students.

The admissions review will be launched in early 2020. It will be a wide-ranging consultation which extends to many parts of the admissions system and all students using it. This includes international, postgraduate, part-time and mature applicants as well as full-time undergraduates.

The annual review considers the first year of the OfS’s new regulatory regime. The review includes data on registration to 23 October 2019. As of 18 December 2019, the OfS has registered 391 higher education providers. Only 12 had no interventions of any form as part of this registration decision, while 65 per cent have been subject to additional monitoring requirements or conditions of registration.

Most interventions (615) took the form of a formal communication – in which providers receive a letter directing their attention to an area of concern. At the point of registration, 18 providers received specific conditions of registration, where the OfS requires action in order to avert a potential breach of a condition of registration. In addition, 252 providers were subject to enhanced monitoring. 

OfS data shows that there remain significant disparities in access and participation in higher education:

  • In 2017-18, English higher education providers recruited twice as many students from the most advantaged backgrounds compared to the least advantaged. This ratio increases to approximately five times as many for the most selective universities.
  • In 2017-18 there was a difference of 23 percentage points between the proportion of white and black students achieving a first or 2.1.
  • White British students from the lowest socio-economic status background are less likely than any other group to enter higher education.
  • An unusually low number of students from various rural and coastal communities enter university, particularly in parts of the north of England and rural areas of the South West.

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