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OfS sets out plans to crack down on poor quality courses

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive, Office for Students (OfS)

Universities and colleges offering poor quality courses will face tough regulatory action, under proposals published by the Office for Students (@officestudents).

The OfS has today (20 Jan) published numerical thresholds which will underpin requirements for minimum acceptable student outcomes.

Universities and colleges not meeting these could face investigation, with fines and restrictions on their access to student loan funding available as potential sanctions. These proposals will sit alongside the OfS’s other conditions of registration on quality in higher education. 

The OfS has set out thresholds for full and part-time students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. These thresholds are designed to set a high bar which takes account of a university or college’s individual circumstances and maintains public confidence in the performance of individual universities and colleges and the higher education sector in England more generally.

For example, for full-time students studying a first degree, the OfS’s proposed thresholds are for: 

  • 80 per cent of students to continue into a second year of study
  • 75 per cent of students to complete their qualification
  • 60 per cent of students to go into professional employment or further study. 

Students studying on courses below the thresholds are often from groups underrepresented in higher education and the OfS’s proposals are designed to ensure that providers must support the students they recruit to achieve positive outcomes, regardless of their background. 

The OfS has also set out plans to incentivise excellent teaching, learning and student outcomes at universities and colleges performing above our minimum requirements.  

Under new proposals for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), universities and colleges in England would be assessed on their undergraduate courses for a TEF award every four years. Universities and colleges in England meeting the OfS’s minimum requirements for quality would need to apply for a TEF award, which would assess excellence in the student experience and student outcomes. 

Ratings – of gold, silver or bronze – would then be awarded by an expert TEF panel, weighing up evidence submitted by universities and colleges, numerical indicators and submissions from students. A new ‘requires improvement’ category would be used for universities and colleges where the panel is unable to identify excellence.  

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: 

‘These proposals mark a landmark moment in our work to tackle poor quality provision in English higher education. Students from all backgrounds deserve to be on good courses leading to qualifications which stand the test of time and prepare them well for life after graduation. 

‘Many universities and colleges in England run high quality courses that deliver positive outcomes for students. The thresholds that we have proposed will not affect them. They are instead designed to target those poor quality courses and outcomes which are letting students down and don’t reflect students’ ambition and effort.   

‘Alongside the thresholds, we are providing detailed information to universities and colleges that will enable them to assess their own performance, and to make improvements where quality is low – whether that is across the board, or for particular groups of students, or in certain subjects. But we are clear that we are raising our expectations of universities and colleges. Low quality courses which lead to poor outcomes for students are unacceptable, and we are determined to take action where students are recruited onto courses which offer few tangible benefits.  

‘Both the thresholds we are publishing today and our proposals for the TEF will put more information in the hands of students and prospective students, helping them to identify the universities and colleges offering excellent teaching. Changes to the TEF will help students identify the highest quality courses, inform their study choices and further improve the reputation of those universities offering their students excellent teaching and outcomes.  

‘These are comprehensive proposals and we are keen to seek views from everyone with an interest in higher education. We understand that they are likely to generate significant debate. This is welcome, and we will carefully analyse and consider responses to the consultations before we make final decisions. We are especially keen to hear from students and their representatives, who have an important stake in the success of this work.’ 

Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, said: 

‘Students deserve an education that will help them achieve their dreams, so we need to crack down on those universities that are not delivering this ambition. Our university system is acclaimed as world class, but there are too many pockets of poor quality.  

‘Through this tough regulatory action, we are protecting students from being let down by these institutions, whilst also ensuring those delivering outstanding teaching are properly recognised.  

‘Whether it is giving students the face-to-face teaching they deserve or ensuring universities tackle drop-out rates and poor graduate outcomes, this Government will always fight for a fair deal for students.’ 

Today’s consultations are part of a wider programme of work. The OfS has previously consulted on the broad principles of its planned approach, as well as proposed new conditions of registration which would ensure sharper powers to tackle low quality courses. 

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