English higher education 2020: The Office for Students annual review

The 2020 annual review reflects on a year of challenge and resilience for English higher education. It looks at our support to students and the sector during the pandemic, and sets out our priorities for 2021.

Chair's foreword

Sir Michael Barber, OfS Chair

At the point of last year’s annual review, the preeminent achievement of the Office for Students (OfS) had been the registration of higher education providers. Then I set out three major future challenges: securing greater equity in the access and participation of students; establishing sector-wide financial sustainability; and improving the quality of teaching to deliver positive outcomes for students. Although the conditions of the last 12 months have been radically different from anything we could have predicted and despite some undoubted progress, those three challenges remain unchanged.

If anything, they are now more pressing and urgent. Through this period of challenge, it is vital we do not lose sight of our long-term ambitions to improve the diversity of the higher education sector, to continually enhance the academic experience of students, and to regulate providers’ and the sector’s financial sustainability so that it can continue to be world leading. These priorities can be distilled into the notion of stewardship: the steady focus on managing the higher education landscape in the interests of students and taxpayers for the short, medium and long term, so that each of us, wherever we are in the system, is continuously striving to leave things better than we found them.

At the beginning of my term as OfS chair, I made clear that my top priority was to see radical and rapid improvement in both equality of opportunity and social mobility for students seeking to enter and progress through higher education. In response to our bold access and participation agenda, institutions have set out ambitious plans that, once delivered, will see the access gap in England's most selective universities halved within the next five years. Furthermore, the cumulative impact of providers’ plans would see gaps in dropout rates and attainment significantly reduced by 2024-25.

These are crucial steps towards ensuring that access, progress and success through higher education and beyond are realities for all students with the ability and desire. This evolving agenda is crucial not just for individual students but also for universities and colleges, which can only benefit from including the full diversity of talent, and indeed for wider society and the economy, which is strengthened by unleashing the talent of all citizens.

The area most obviously and radically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic has been the delivery of teaching and learning. In spring this year, universities and colleges shifted to online teaching with impressive speed. I have been told that in some cases more progress was made in a month than in the previous five years. My review of digital teaching and learning, due to report in early 2021, will set out how we can learn the lessons from this shift and ensure digital provision becomes a significant contributor – in myriad ways – to high-quality teaching and learning. This will require us collectively to ensure no student suffers from digital poverty; that every provider takes a whole-institution, strategic approach to digital transformation; and that opportunities to take teaching and learning to a new level are seized through ongoing dialogue with students. The pandemic forced a radical shift to online delivery; the disruptions and challenges involved will only be truly worthwhile if they lead to opportunities seized.

The last 12 months have been unexpectedly demanding for students, universities and the OfS alike. For the most part, the way in which these challenges have been met has served to highlight the remarkable resilience of this generation of students and the enduring value and appeal of a higher education. As we look ahead, it is the honour and responsibility of both the OfS and higher education providers to make and maintain, in the words of Václav Havel, ‘the climate of civilisation’, underpinned by the ‘deep social importance’ of scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge.


Nicola Dandridge, CBE, OfS chief executive
Nicola Dandridge, CBE, OfS chief executive

For English higher education, 2020 has been a year of challenge and resilience. In last year’s review commentary, the issues I highlighted – relating to fair admissions, better student information, and improved teaching quality – assumed a sector with a predictable trajectory. Coronavirus upended that assumption. The pandemic required extensive changes to the ways students are taught, and how universities and colleges are run. Nonetheless, the themes of admissions, information for students and teaching quality have remained relevant throughout.

Existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic, though they have manifested themselves in different ways such as through digital poverty, in the difficulties some students have operating outside traditional course structures, and the particular impact of the disease on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.1 Lockdowns have also brought into even sharper focus students’ mental health. We have seen the stark impact of fewer graduate opportunities – a situation unlikely to improve in the near future as the economic consequences of the pandemic become clearer. Independently of the pandemic, the national policy environment has been changing too, with a lively debate taking place about the quality and value of degree courses, and the relationship between further and higher education.

The response of the sector and the OfS to these challenges is at the heart of my commentary this year. I describe the exceptional resilience and resolve that universities and colleges, and students, have displayed. I also look ahead to areas of priority for the OfS in 2021: raising the bar on quality and standards; maximising the potential of digital teaching and addressing digital poverty; and increasing opportunities for mature students.

Responding to the coronavirus pandemic

The national lockdown in March had an immediate and enormous impact on higher education. Often under immense pressure, universities and colleges found innovative ways to deliver online teaching, keep their students and staff safe, and contribute to the wider national scientific and health effort. Despite gloomy predictions in the spring, recruitment nationally has broadly held up.

In response to the crisis, the OfS was quick to adapt its regulatory approach to allow providers the space to focus on supporting students. We established realistic expectations for teaching quality, standards and student protection. We adapted our requirements for data collections, paused our consultations, and gathered information to monitor financial sustainability. We worked with our student panel to better support students during lockdowns, and sought to minimise long-term disruption and damage to the English higher education system while laying the foundations for recovery as quickly as possible.2 We also worked collaboratively with the Department for Education and the sector to develop programmes for financial support, and support public health priorities.

Teaching and learning

Maintaining teaching quality and academic standards is at the heart of our regulatory role, and this has been even more important during the pandemic. As the transition to digital learning took place, many students faced unprecedented challenges in accessing lectures, tutorials and wider support. We have been particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic on certain groups of students: international students, postgraduates and students who are vulnerable by reason of disability or for other reasons.

In guidance published in April, we emphasised the importance of universities and colleges continuing to do all they could to maintain the quality of courses and the credibility of their qualifications. Acknowledging the impact of coronavirus, we set out how we would adjust our approach to monitoring and enforcing our regulatory requirements.3 We followed this up with further guidance in June, which set out our approach to student protection.4

Since publishing these guidance notes, we have been monitoring this area by directly engaging with providers to find out how they are maintaining the quality of provision and how they are communicating changes; by requiring providers to report significant changes of provision to us; by polling students’ views; and by monitoring data that may indicate problems with the quality of provision – for instance non-continuation rates.

Clear communication is important in any crisis. This was particularly the case for existing students in the face of changes in teaching provision and uncertainties caused by periods of forced isolation and the risks or reality of coronavirus outbreaks on campus. It was equally true for students starting courses this autumn, the disruptions to whose teaching and exams at school or college this summer had led to considerable uncertainty. Clarity of provider communications was a theme of our June guidance, and is something I have continued to highlight throughout the pandemic. It is not easy to be clear when so much is uncertain, but in these circumstances the need for clear communication with students is more important than ever. Students have consistently told us they want to be kept properly informed about what is happening and to know what their options are, so they can respond and make informed judgements, and they have a right to expect that.

Working from home has been a challenge for many during the pandemic. For students, these challenges also exposed the extent of digital poverty. Our polling in September showed that over two-thirds of students had difficulties finding a quiet space to study. Over half felt their learning had been impacted by a slow or unreliable internet connection, while around one in five had problems accessing a computer, laptop or tablet. More than half of students responding to the poll believed that their learning was damaged by lack of access to appropriate online materials, with one in 10 impacted severely.5 To address these concerns, in September we launched a review of digital teaching and learning, commissioned by the Department for Education and chaired by Sir Michael Barber, which will address these issues and report early next year.6

Financial sustainability, funding and admissions

Financial uncertainty resulting from the pandemic led to real worries that some universities and colleges would not be able to survive. There were fears that many home students would defer their places and international students would not come, making many courses – and some providers – unviable. Thankfully, the more extreme fears proved misplaced this year, although universities and colleges continue to face challenges, some more than others, and the financial consequences of the pandemic for providers are likely to be with us for some time.
Throughout the year, we worked closely with universities and colleges to protect students’ interests. We engaged with individual providers where we were concerned about their financial sustainability, and we will continue to do so through the coming year as the effects of the pandemic play out. We have worked closely with the Department for Education to ensure that support from the Treasury, including access to business loans, was available to those that needed it.

When a provider or course is no longer viable, students’ interests must be paramount. It is essential that they can easily continue their studies elsewhere. They also need good advice about their rights. Every university and college is required, as a condition of its registration with the OfS, to have a student protection plan. We will soon publish our decisions following our consultation on proposals that those providers at material risk will need to comply with specific directions to protect students.

An important part of the OfS’s work relates to funding. For the 2019-20 academic year we have funded providers for the first time under the powers given to us under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, distributing just under £1.25 billion in recurrent grants to 333 providers, including 37 that were not funded in 2018-19.7 This funding supports high-cost courses, and activities to widen participation and secure successful student outcomes. Following a reduction of £58 million to our grant from government for financial year 2020-21, we were able to avoid reducing the grants that we had previously announced to providers for academic year 2019-20.8 We also provided £100 million in capital funding and funded strategic programmes addressing student mental health, and – jointly with Research England – student involvement in knowledge exchange.9

Earlier in the year, there was serious concern that those universities and colleges that could expand their UK student numbers would do so at the expense of other providers, causing widespread financial instability. There was also concern that financial pressures might lead some universities and colleges to mislead the students they recruited, or put pressure on them to accept unconditional offers. In response to these concerns, we consulted on a new temporary condition of registration, which we imposed in July, to prevent such practices for the coming year.10 We also initiated a review of admissions to ensure the higher education system was operating in a way that was fair and effective.

Public service

While the pandemic undoubtedly brought many challenges, it also highlighted the strengths of our higher education sector, and the strong sense of civic responsibility among its students and staff. Universities were on the frontline in expanding our medical understanding of the pandemic and in the search for treatments and vaccines. Some hosted Nightingale hospitals, others boosted the testing effort. Student nurses and doctors worked in hospitals before they might have expected to do so. Innovations came, not just in teaching and learning, but in the practical delivery of outreach and recruitment, and support for vulnerable students. Through a series of briefing notes this year we highlighted some of these innovations.11

Our new phase of regulation

As we now seek to re-establish usual regulatory arrangements, we are reviewing our approach. Rather than aiming to reinstate our previous approach, we decided to draw on our experience of the last two years to take stock of how we regulate, how we should increase our expectations in terms of quality and standards, and how we could make good on the commitment in the regulatory framework that universities and colleges that do not pose specific increased risk should have less regulatory burden. In November, we launched a consultation that set out how we propose to do this, in particular setting out proposals for new and more challenging baselines for student outcomes, and allowing consideration of performance at subject level.12

Improving equality of opportunity

In January, we published the access and participation plans of over 200 universities and colleges. They showed a strong level of ambition, and a real commitment to narrowing persistent gaps in access, success while studying, and outcomes. Numerical targets underpin these plans. Taken together they would, for example, mean 6,500 extra students from the most disadvantaged areas would enter the most selective universities each year from 2024-25 onwards.13 In practice, as our analysis has shown, most of these students are from industrial towns and the most deprived parts of cities across the North and Midlands, and coastal towns throughout the country.14 The targets would also mean the gap between the proportions of white and black students who are awarded a 1st or 2:1 degree would drop from 22 to 11.2 percentage points.15

We issued guidance to universities and colleges in November 2020 which set out how they should report next year on the activity and financial support they delivered to students through their access and participation plans during 2019-20, and on the impact the pandemic has had on the plans we have agreed with them from 2020-21 onwards.16

These plans are about more than gaps and targets. They are about enabling individuals to reach their potential: a student who is the first among his family and friends to study for a degree; a disabled student able to access and enjoy learning like everyone else; a care leaver getting the chance to study for a degree; a black student getting the first-class degree she deserves, placing her in line for a good graduate job.

The pandemic has had a mixed impact on access. Overall, more students from low-participation areas started in higher education this year. But those from higher-participation areas gained even more extra places, so that gap has widened. However, an expansion of places at the more selective universities has given greater opportunities for disadvantaged students.17

2020 was also a year when the wider public was reminded of the inequalities faced by black people in Britain. We continue to prioritise work on closing the degree attainment gap and have worked with Research England to identify the barriers for black, Asian and minority ethnic students progressing to postgraduate research. This has led to a joint funding competition to support projects that improve access to progression.18

In January, we launched a consultation on our expectations of how universities and colleges should prevent and respond to incidents of harassment – including racial and sexual harassment. Universities and colleges have been improving their procedures, after several high-profile cases in recent years highlighted the inadequacy of many current procedures. Our consultation set out a series of proposals to improve processes. Students should know how they can report incidents at their university or college, and feel confident that when they do their complaints will be addressed properly. Having paused the consultation because of the pandemic, we plan to relaunch it early in 2021.

The mental health and wellbeing of students have been a growing concern in recent years, and the pandemic has created heightened anxiety and depression for some. Increased pastoral support is important when more learning is happening online. We funded Student Minds to support a specific, time-limited digital resource, Student Space, in response to the pandemic. It complements the mental health support already in place through universities, colleges and NHS services in England and Wales, seeking to fill potential gaps in provision to ensure that all students have access to support they need. This year we appointed commissioners for the Disabled Students' Commission who were committed to making change for disabled students. The commission will help universities and colleges to remove the barriers preventing disabled students from accessing and succeeding in higher education and having the best possible experience during their studies.

The number of mature learners entering higher education has declined significantly over the past decade, particularly those studying part-time, whose numbers have fallen by more than half since 2010.19 Mature students include those who may have felt unable – or chosen not – to study for a degree after leaving school, as well as those seeking to expand their skills and knowledge, often for career advancement. There are many explanations for the decline. Some of it may reflect the higher numbers of 18- and 19-year-olds studying, and changes to eligibility for second degrees. In the 2020 intake, there has been a notable increase in full-time mature students, mainly driven by a rise in those accepted onto nursing courses.20 Our analysis of access and participation plans has shown that mature students have not been prioritised by many universities, despite overall low and falling proportions of such students in their own populations and the sector more broadly. As those that recruit higher numbers of mature students recognise, ensuring that courses respond to the needs of mature students requires flexibility and imagination. Traditional timetables often do not work for those who try to combine work and study, often with caring responsibilities.

As the pandemic continues to have a negative impact on our economy, many more people of working age are likely to need and want to improve their skills. There is a real prospect that mature graduates could be the backbone of regional recovery in some parts of England.

Looking forward to next year

Next year we will continue to promote and protect the interests of students across many of our activities, continuing to adapt our approach to reflect the new environment in which we are all now living and working. But there are three priorities I would wish to pick out: raising the bar on quality of standards; maximising the potential of digital teaching and learning, including tackling digital poverty; and a clearer focus on mature students.

Raising the bar on quality and standards

All students have the right to expect that their courses will be of high quality. That is particularly the case given that many of them will be paying tuition fees of over £9,000 a year. They rightly expect good teaching, the right support, and the chance to gain a qualification that will stand them in good stead after graduation.

A university or college’s registration with the OfS gives its students the right to access government loans and study visas, as well as enabling it to apply for degree awarding powers and receive teaching grants. When we register universities and colleges, we assess their performance in relation to a range of indicators of quality, including continuation, completion and employment outcomes. All students – whatever their background – should expect their provider to deliver performance that meets a minimum acceptable level.

Poor-quality courses should be improved or no longer offered. The consultation published in November proposes a series of measures to define, monitor and take action regarding the quality and standards of courses that do not reach minimum requirements.21 We have also proposed that we should set increased and more challenging numerical baselines for our assessment of student outcomes, so students can have confidence in the quality of the courses offered by all English higher education providers. Our proposals would ensure that providers that recruit students from underrepresented groups and with protected characteristics are held to the same minimum level of performance as other providers, and would see consideration given to outcomes at subject level within providers, as well as at the level of the whole provider. We expect to consult further on our approach to baseline quality in due course.

The initial quality and standards consultation also explains, at a high level, the relationship between minimum baseline requirements for quality and standards, requirements for access and participation plans, and the anticipated approach to the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). We expect to consult on our future approach to the TEF after the government has published the independent Pearce review and its response. Our intention is to ensure that, as our future approaches to the regulation of baseline quality and the above-baseline assessment undertaken for the TEF are further developed, they combine to produce an overall approach to quality that delivers our regulatory objectives and ensures a coherent whole.

Getting this right has real social benefits. Better quality can bring greater equality, and strong economic and social benefits, not least in parts of the country that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, where skilled graduates will be crucial to recovery and regeneration.

Maximising the potential of digital teaching and learning, and addressing digital poverty

Since the start of the pandemic, most universities and colleges have adopted some form of remote teaching and learning. This shift to online provision has been driven by necessity, but also creates huge opportunities. As part of the review of digital teaching and learning led by Sir Michael Barber, we will be looking at how high-quality provision of this kind can be continued and delivered at scale in the future, and what opportunities are presented for English higher education in the longer term. Sir Michael’s review will report in early 2021, and will inform our approach in the future.

The review will particularly focus on the digital poverty that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp focus. We will want to ensure that access and participation plans reflect the extent to which more students may need financial or digital support to access courses that are delivered remotely. We need to see creative ways to improve access for those who need to study away from traditional campus facilities, or who opt for distance or blended learning.

Improving opportunities for mature students

During 2021, we expect to see more demand from adults to study in higher education for retraining as we move out of the pandemic. This is a trend we need to encourage, not least as a way of ensuring that a highly skilled graduate workforce can support our national, regional and local economies, as they emerge from the impact of the pandemic and adapt to life outside the European Union. New lifelong loan entitlements will make learning more affordable for adults without A-levels. At the same time, there are more opportunities for mature students in areas like nursing.22

2021 should be a year when we look more seriously at how courses could be made more attractive and responsive to mature students, and a year when more adults are encouraged to take up such opportunities.

During 2021, we will prioritise opportunities for mature students with improved advice and opportunities. In practice, this will include more nursing places as we work with Health Education England. It will mean collaborating with universities and colleges to ensure a greater focus on mature students in access and participation plans. It will also see better advice and support by increasing the focus of Uni Connect partnerships on working with employers and communities to support mature student participation, including a stronger role for further education colleges.

1 Public Health England, ‘COVID-19: understanding the impact on BAME communities’, June 2020 (available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-understanding-the-impact-on-bame-communities).

2 OfS, ‘Update from the Office for Students on coronavirus (COVID-19)’, March 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/letter-from-the-office-for-students-on-coronavirus/).

3 OfS, ‘Guidance for providers about quality and standards during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’, April 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/guidance-for-providers-about-quality-and-standards-during-coronavirus-pandemic/).

4 OfS, ‘Guidance for providers about student and consumer protection during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’, June 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/guidance-for-providers-about-student-and-consumer-protection-during-the-pandemic/).

OfS, ‘“Digital poverty” risks leaving students behind’, September 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/digital-poverty-risks-leaving-students-behind/).

6 OfS, ‘Digital teaching and learning in English higher education during the coronavirus pandemic: Call for evidence’, September 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/digital-teaching-and-learning-in-english-higher-education-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-call-for-evidence/).

7 OfS, ‘Recurrent funding for 2019-20’, May 2019 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/recurrent-funding-for-2019-20/).

8 OfS, ‘Funding for 2019-20 and 2020-21: OfS board decisions and outcomes of consultation’, May 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/funding-for-2020-21-ofs-board-decisions/).

9 Student Space, ‘About student space’ (https://studentspace.org.uk/about-student-space); OfS, ‘Knowledge exchange funding’, April 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/funding-for-providers/knowledge-exchange-funding-competition/).

10 OfS, ‘Consultation on the integrity and stability of the English higher education sector’, May 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/consultation-on-the-integrity-and-stability-of-the-english-higher-education-sector/).

11 OfS, ‘Briefing notes’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/coronavirus/briefing-notes/).

12 OfS, ‘Consultation on regulating quality and standards in higher education’, November 2020 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/consultation-on-regulating-quality-and-standards-in-higher-education/).

13 This figure assumes that any closing of the gap in entry rates at high-tariff universities and colleges between the most and least represented groups is achieved by growth in the number of entrants from those areas least represented in higher education and no growth in the rest of the sector. [1] OfS, ‘Transforming opportunity in higher education’, January 2020 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/transforming-opportunity-in-higher-education/), p23.

14 OfS, ‘Low areas of young participation by parliamentary constituency’, October 2020 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/young-participation-by-area/get-the-area-based-measures-data/).

15 OfS, ‘Transforming opportunity in higher education’, January 2020 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/transforming-opportunity-in-higher-education/), p4.

16 OfS, ‘Access to higher education before, during and after the pandemic’, October 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/blog/access-to-higher-education-before-during-and-after-the-pandemic/).

17 OfS, ‘Access to higher education before, during and after the pandemic’, October 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/blog/access-to-higher-education-before-during-and-after-the-pandemic/).

18 OfS, ‘New fund to improve postgraduate research participation and access’, October 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/new-fund-to-improve-postgraduate-research-participation-and-access/).

19 OfS, ‘Equality and diversity student data’ (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/equality-and-diversity/equality-and-diversity-data/).

20 UCAS, ‘Statistical releases: Daily clearing analysis 2020’, September 2020 (available at https://www.ucas.com/data-and-analysis/undergraduate-statistics-and-reports/statistical-releases-daily-clearing-analysis-2020).

21 OfS, ‘Consultation on regulating quality and standards in higher education’, November 2020 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/consultation-on-regulating-quality-and-standards-in-higher-education/).

22 Prime Minister's Office, ‘PM's skills speech: 29 September 2020’, September 2020 (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pms-skills-speech-29-september-2020).

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Published 03 December 2020

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