Excellent teaching and learning often reinforce, and are reinforced by, dynamic research focusing on innovation and social and economic benefit. Graduates contribute essential skills to our communities as doctors, nurses, teachers and in many other roles, while universities and colleges themselves account for 1.2 per cent of the UK’s gross domestic product.5
English universities and colleges offer an impressive range of courses and ways to study.6 That diversity enriches the choices available to students and enables innovative provision to suit different students’ aspirations and needs. Universities and colleges make a strong contribution to regional and national economic development, underlining their broader role as drivers of economic prosperity, social mobility and cultural enrichment.
In this first 18 months of the 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.
This is an impressive and inspiring record of achievement and commitment. However, the sector’s reputation cannot be taken for granted. Nor should its reputation prevent us from recognising and addressing serious issues and concerns where they exist.
Despite progress in recent years, stubborn gaps in access and participation remain. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still far less likely than their better-off peers to go to university, far more likely to drop out when they get there, and less likely to get a good job when they leave.
Admissions practices do not always work in the interests of students, and prospective students too often lack the information they need to make an informed choice about the content, quality and cost of their courses. Teaching quality can be variable, campuses are not always safe and welcoming places, and many students are concerned about the value for money of their studies.
The OfS was established to address these and other issues. We regulate universities, colleges and other higher education providers in the interests of all students – past, present and future. We want every student, whatever their background, to have a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers. Across the sector, we aim to incentivise and enable the conditions which allow a diversity of institutions to thrive, compete and improve for the benefit of students. We liaise with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where it is in the interests of students to do so. We regulate to ensure that students can be sure their university or college meets minimum quality thresholds, and has the money to deliver what it has promised. In so doing, we respect the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom – two ingredients crucial to the sector’s continuing success.
Over the past year the OfS has highlighted unexplained cases of grade inflation and inappropriate use of unconditional offers. We have intervened, when necessary, to address both issues. We have required providers to take better account of a student’s background when making admissions decisions, and put pressure on governing bodies to rein in excessive pay for vice chancellors. We have intervened decisively in cases where university governance has not been good enough. We have refused to register a number of providers where students’ educational outcomes or the providers’ financial stability fell short.
These are challenging times, for higher education and for the country. Universities and colleges are navigating a complex policy, political and economic environment. Over the past few years they have also faced sustained criticism in the media and elsewhere. Whether justified or not, this risks tarnishing their reputation, and raises questions about their purpose and value.
All these issues threaten not only the enviable reputation of higher education in England, but also the trust and confidence of students and the public in our higher education system. This is a matter of serious concern for a sector of profound importance to our country and our future.
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 interests 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.
This annual review sets out our assessment of the current state of English higher education, and reflects on the OfS’s progress to date in implementing a new regulatory approach which places students at its heart.
The registration process: Issues and concerns
The OfS’s approach to regulation reflects the diversity of the sector. It is designed to ensure a common quality threshold for every university and college offering higher education in England, while respecting the sector’s diversity.
The OfS’s regulatory framework sets out 24 conditions relating to access and participation, quality and standards, student protection, financial sustainability and governance, all of which providers must satisfy if they wish to be registered with us. Over the past year and a half, we have assessed over 500 applications and registered a total of 387 providers. In so doing, we have gathered a wealth of information and data that will help us, and the sector, to highlight and address issues of common concern and identify areas for improvement.
Some providers submitted strong and credible applications for registration. However, most were incomplete, and a large number contained insufficient or inadequate evidence. Many demonstrated a lack of understanding of the new regulatory requirements. Some seemed to show little recognition that the regulatory environment had changed, and that the OfS is a regulator not a funder. We have recently published a report on the registration process to date and its outcomes for 2019-20, identifying key themes and issues that have emerged.7
We did not register providers where we were not confident that they had satisfied the initial conditions of registration. Many of the weaknesses we identified related to how the evidence was presented and explained, rather than to substantive issues with satisfying the conditions. To assure ourselves that this was the case, we undertook often extensive follow-up enquiries and requested information and clarification. This prolonged the process for a significant number of providers, but was important for the robustness of our regulation.
We imposed some form of regulatory intervention on the vast majority of universities and colleges that we have registered. This includes highlighting concerns we want to see addressed, setting out actions to be taken, signalling our intention to undertake more frequent or intensive checks, and imposing specific conditions where we consider there to be a significantly increased risk of a future breach of a condition. The implementation of an efficient and effective monitoring system will be a major task for us in the coming year.
We have already intervened on a number of occasions where providers have been at increased risk of breaching a registration condition. Our monitoring has revealed areas where we are concerned about governance oversight and accountability.
We also want to continue closely monitoring the financial sustainability of universities and colleges. Demonstrating ongoing financial viability and sustainability is a condition of registration, and universities and colleges will need to reassess their financial assumptions and forecasts in a period of considerable volatility and uncertainty. The registration process exposed the extent to which some are being over-optimistic in their planning, and in particular their student number forecasts. We expect realistic evidence-based forecasting and, where appropriate, early warning systems and effective mitigations.
Access and participation
Our objectives for access and participation are unashamedly ambitious. Our aim is to ensure equality of opportunity for all students. This ambition applies across the student lifecycle: we want students from all backgrounds to be able not just to enter higher education, but to thrive when they get there, and to go on to have fulfilling careers. We believe that it is not possible to have excellence in higher education without equality of opportunity.
We are acutely aware of the scale and complexity of the issues: the interplay of social and economic factors, the role of place and region, the impact of policy and of a student’s prior attainment. We recognise that there has been a gradual improvement in the proportions of underrepresented groups going into higher education in recent decades. The latest round of access and participation plans – submitted to the OfS earlier this year – is testament to the genuine commitment of universities and colleges, including those with the most selective intakes, to equality of opportunity.
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. During the registration process only 12 providers received no regulatory intervention in relation to the access and participation condition.
We will monitor these plans carefully, and robustly challenge underperformance. At sector level, recognising the need for more and better evidence of ‘what works’, we will continue to support the dissemination of effective practice, and encourage rigorous evaluation to ensure the focus is on impact, not just activity.
There is also 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.8 Poverty of income should not be an excuse for poverty of ambition. We must not condone poor outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
We are still a long way from equality of opportunity in higher education, but we have a great opportunity to make a real difference that will deliver immeasurable dividends not just to students but also to universities and colleges, and beyond them to communities and society.
The experience of students in higher education
The OfS’s regulatory powers and objectives are designed to ensure that students have a high-quality experience of higher education and are supported to succeed in, and achieve positive outcomes from, their time there.
Students tell us that the quality of their teaching is the most important issue for them in determining whether they receive value for money, and the TEF addresses precisely this issue. Gold, Silver and Bronze awards are issued to providers based not only on teaching quality but also excellence in the learning environment, and the educational and professional outcomes achieved by students.
Where providers are at risk of financial insolvency, we will intervene to ensure that the interests of students are protected and students are enabled, whenever possible, to transfer to other courses at other universities or colleges that are suitable for them.
We are also acutely aware of the growing concerns about the mental health of students. The OfS and its partners have invested £14.5 million in a number of major projects dedicated to exploring new approaches and solutions, in collaboration with universities and colleges, the NHS and mental health charities.9 Building on the outcomes of these projects, we will work with students, the NHS and providers to tackle this issue effectively. Over the next year, we intend to focus on the mental health of not just UK undergraduates, but postgraduates and international students.
We also plan to particularly prioritise work that will address harassment on the basis of race, religion, disability, gender or sexuality, which has no place in university campuses. We have already funded over 100 projects across over 80 universities and colleges to develop practical responses and resources to support students and bring about cultural and attitudinal change.10 We will be going further than this over the next year by setting out our expectations of universities and colleges in preventing and dealing with incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct.
Value for money
Higher education must deliver value for money for students and taxpayers. The trebling of tuition fees from 2012 increased expectations in this area, with a particular focus on teaching quality. Our own research on student perceptions – the first commissioned by the OfS – found that value for money meant different things to different students, but overall only 38 per cent of respondents thought their tuition fees represented value for money.11 A recent survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute echoes this finding.12
Value for money runs like a thread through all of the OfS’s work. Our value for money strategy, published in October 2019, gives more detail of our approach.13 The strategy prioritises action on the issues that evidence shows students care about. We will measure our performance by asking students and graduates about their views on value for money.14
One of our regulatory expectations is that providers make effective arrangements for transparency about value for money for students and, where grant funding is concerned, for taxpayers. We have found that students’ perspectives on value for money may differ significantly from those held by universities and colleges, and that information about this is not always presented in a way that enables students to know how their fees are being spent.
We will be addressing these and other issues through our student information, advice and guidance strategy. Our focus extends beyond the provision of information for prospective students, to encompass support for their consumer rights throughout their time in higher education. We recognise the importance of clear, effective complaints systems, and we are working with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator to look at what more we can do in this area. We will also be seeking to ensure that student contracts, including their terms and conditions, are fair, transparent and accessible.
Working with students
The OfS regulates in the interests of students. We do not provide direct advice or support to individual students, nor are we in any way a representative body. But we are absolutely clear that the perspectives of students must inform our work. We need, and want, to be challenged by students. Understanding their experiences and drawing on their expertise helps us to be a more effective regulator.
My experience over the last year of meeting with students and students’ unions, and listening to their views, has involved some of the most stimulating and thoughtful discussions that I have had since starting with the OfS. Their views, along with those of our student panel, have informed my thinking and approach to higher education, and the work of the OfS. I have heard loudly and clearly how important the quality of teaching and effective assessment and feedback are to students. I have heard how concerned students are about mental health, equality and diversity, and global issues such as climate change. Our student panel members have in particular emphasised how important meaningful student engagement is for the OfS and for providers, and the need for the OfS to be able to demonstrate change in access and participation for disadvantaged students across the sector.
The OfS’s student engagement strategy, to be published in spring 2020 following a period of extensive consultation, will set out our approach for the period to 2023. Its recommendations will seek to reflect the diversity of the student population, our commitment to listening and learning, and our desire to involve students in shaping the direction of the OfS.
Meantime, the activities described in this review are testament to the positive and tangible impact students are already having on our work – through participation in the TEF, in their responses to our surveys on value for money and other topics, and through the thoughtful contributions of our student panel.
We know that the NSS does not capture the views of students who leave before completing their courses, and we are looking at ways of expanding the survey to include their voices. We are also piloting a new survey for postgraduate students.
Graduate outcomes and employers’ perspectives
Graduates continue to earn, on average, 35 per cent more than non-graduates, about £10,000 extra a year.15 The vast majority earn more than those who do not go to university.16 They are less likely to be unemployed than non-graduates.17 They make a major contribution to the public and private sectors, to industries and businesses of crucial importance to the UK economy.
Information, advice and guidance to students about careers and graduate outcomes are now an integral part of higher education provision, and employability is widely integrated into curriculums. However, there are major disparities between levels of graduate employment across different regions. Graduates who are mobile are more likely to have successful employment outcomes, yet almost 50 per cent study and go on to their first employment in their home region, where opportunities may be more limited. And some regions struggle to retain the graduates they need to support their economies.
The OfS is working with employers, universities and colleges to address these geographical skills gaps, funding innovative programmes that address local employer and graduate needs, and knowledge exchange activities that benefit students and graduates. We have just co-funded with Research England a programme to identify and improve the benefits for students in knowledge exchange activities.
The evidence we already have demonstrates the link between work experience and improved outcomes, so we will be encouraging more universities and colleges to consider how work experience can be incorporated into courses for a wider group of students. We are also encouraging providers to consider how they can redevelop and redesign curriculums to embed the skills which enhance employability.
Working with higher education providers
Over the past 18 months we have been developing relationships and ways of working with the universities, colleges and other providers we regulate. We seek open, trusting relationships, but relationships that acknowledge that we are an independent regulator, acting first and foremost in the interests of students. This means we will on occasion need to communicate robustly, and this may on occasion be uncomfortable. However, we understand that by engaging appropriately with providers, and listening to their perspectives, we will be a more effective regulator.
Our aim is to act in accordance with our values of ambition, openness, learning and diversity. We seek to explain our decisions clearly, and to be transparent. We value the wealth of experience and expertise university academics and practitioners bring to bear on issues such as student mental health, widening participation and graduate employability, as part of our work to support effective practice on these and other issues. We are also consulting on a range of regulatory issues to ensure that providers have the opportunity to respond to our proposed policies.
Our approach is informed by the principles of the Regulators’ Code, and a clear sense of what we are here to do. It is risk-based and aims to minimise the burden on providers. We have set explicit parameters for engagement, which are rooted in our regulatory functions and duties. We remain committed to reducing regulatory burden, acknowledging that this will be difficult particularly in the early stages of the OfS’s development. We have regard to the need to protect institutional autonomy, while acknowledging that there can be tension between autonomy and accountability; between self-regulation and responsiveness to the priorities of students and society.
The year ahead
In the coming year, the OfS will be building on the systems that are now in place, ensuring that students can rely on the quality threshold prescribed by our regulatory framework. We will want to move from setting up systems, to having demonstrable impact. Access and participation will be a priority, and we know we must continue working to minimise regulatory burden, and engage even more effectively with students and providers.
We will also continue to use our voice, and the tool of transparency, to promote what is good and innovative, and to challenge poor practice wherever appropriate.
Within this broad agenda, there are three areas where we will be paying particular attention: admissions and recruitment, information for students, and improving the quality of teaching and courses.
Fairer admissions and recruitment
We will be conducting a review of university admissions,18 which will include consideration of the merits, or otherwise, of models of post-qualification applications. The government’s supplementary guidance letter to the OfS chair in September 2019 asked us to continue our work in this area.19
The debate within the sector about admissions is longstanding. What has changed is the context in which it is taking place. English higher education now operates within a more competitive policy and regulatory environment in which the protection of students’ interests takes centre stage. To the extent that the existing system is not serving their 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, the subject of an OfS Insight brief in January 2019.20
Better student information and protection
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.
We will play our part by developing our Discover Uni site (in collaboration with our UK funding partners)21 during its beta phase, taking on board feedback from students, teachers and others; and we will be working to improve the information that providers put on their websites on issues such as hidden course fees, course content and bursaries. We will also work to ensure that all students can benefit from the protections of consumer rights legislation.
Improving teaching and courses
As our attention turns to regulating the providers we have 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.22 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 more demanding, and on using our regulatory powers to require providers to improve pockets of weak provision.
We have highlighted over the last year where we have had concerns about the financial stability of universities and colleges.23 While we believe the sector is in sound financial health, there is considerable variation between providers. We will ensure that our risk-based approach to monitoring allows us to identify early signs of financial stress in individual providers. It is not in the interests of students or taxpayers for a provider to tip towards a disorderly market exit. We want to be confident that we can spot worrying financial performance and weaknesses in management and governance so that these can be addressed. Where this is not possible, we want to ensure that an exit is orderly and managed, with students supported to complete their studies.
1 Office for Students (OfS), 2019 National Student Survey (NSS) summary data, July 2019 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/student-information-and-data/national-student-survey-nss/get-the-nss-data/).
2 If a provider holds a TEF Gold award, this means that it delivers consistently outstanding teaching, learning and outcomes for its students and is of the highest quality found in the UK. A Silver award means that it delivers high-quality teaching, learning and outcomes, and consistently exceeds rigorous national quality requirements. A Bronze award means that it delivers teaching, learning and outcomes for its students that meet these requirements.
3 Based on both the questions ‘I have received detailed comments on my work’ and ‘Feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand’ (Higher Education Funding Council for England, ‘Higher education survey reveals continued student satisfaction’ (available at https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100303172000/http://www.hefce.ac.uk/news/hefce/2007/nss.htm); OfS, 2016 NSS summary data (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/student-information-and-data/national-student-survey-nss/get-the-nss-data/). Since 2017 these questions have been replaced in the NSS by ‘I have received helpful comments on my work’.
4 Department for Education (DfE), ‘Graduate labour market statistics 2018’, 25 April 2019 (available at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/graduate-labour-market-statistics-2018), p7.
5 2014-15 figures. Universities UK, ‘Higher education in numbers’, (https://www. universitiesuk.ac.uk/facts-and-stats/Pages/higher-education-data.aspx).
6 In this review, for the sake of readability, we have used ‘universities and colleges’, or sometimes simply ‘universities’, to refer to what our regulatory framework and other more formal documents call ‘higher education providers’.
7 OfS, ‘Registration process and outcomes 2019-20: Key themes and analysis’ (OfS 2019.30), November 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/registration-key-themes-and-analysis/).
8 Boliver V, Gorard S, and Siddiqui N, ‘Using contextualised admissions to widen access to higher education: A guide to the evidence base’, 2019 (available at https://www.dur.ac.uk/dece/themes/participation/).
9 OfS, ‘Innovation, partnership and data can help improve student mental health in new £14 million drive’, July 2019 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/innovation-partnership-and-data-can-help-improve-student-mental-health-in-new-14m-drive/).
10 OfS, ‘Catalyst for change: Protecting students from hate crime, sexual violence and online harassment in higher education’ (OfS 2019.24), June 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/catalyst-fund-projects-evaluation/).
11 Trendence UK, ‘Value for money: The student perspective’, March 2018 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/new-research-shines-spotlight-on-student-perceptions-of-value-for-money/).
12 Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘Student academic experience survey 2019’, June 2019 (available at https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2019/06/13/second-consecutive-year-of-students-reporting-better-value-for-money/).
13 OfS, ‘Office for Students’ Value for money strategy’ (OfS 2019.38), October 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/value-for-money-strategy/).
14 OfS, ‘Value for money performance measures’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/about/measures-of-our-success/value-for-money-performance-measures/).
15 DfE, ‘Graduate labour market statistics 2018’, p1.
16 Institute of Fiscal Studies, ‘The relative labour market returns to different degrees’, June 2018 (available at https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/13036), p24.
17 DfE, ‘Graduate labour market statistics 2018’, p1.
18 OfS, ‘Contextual admissions: Promoting fairness and rethinking merit’ (OfS Insight brief #3), May 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/contextual-admissions-promoting-fairness-and-rethinking-merit/), p8.
19 ‘Supplementary strategic guidance to the OfS’, September 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/regulation/guidance-from-government/).
20 OfS, ‘Unconditional offers: Serving the interests of students?’ (OfS Insight brief #1), January 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/unconditional-offers-serving-the-interests-of-students/).
21 Discover Uni is funded by the Department for Employment and Learning Northern Ireland, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Scottish Funding Council, in partnership with the OfS.
22 OfS 2019.30, ‘Condition B3: Baselines for student outcomes indicators’ (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/registration-key-themes-and-analysis/).
23 OfS, ‘Financial sustainability of higher education providers in England’ (OfS 2019.14), April 2019 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/financial-sustainability-of-higher-education-providers-in-england/).