The OfS regulates higher education in England in the interest of students. In March 2020, we acted swiftly to adapt our regulatory approach in response to the unprecedented challenge of the lockdown. We are acutely aware of the challenges higher education providers continue to face, and we will continue to ensure that our regulatory response is fair and proportionate. Over the past six months, we have been reviewing how we implement our regulatory approach, drawing on our experience since the OfS’s establishment. In so doing, we remain committed to the principle, set out in the regulatory framework, of focusing on the greatest risks to students while reducing burden for those providers without specific increased risk.43
The OfS’s regulatory principles44
The OfS’s mission is to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers. This aim underpins our approach to regulation. Our four guiding principles are that students:
- Are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from, higher education.
- Receive a high-quality academic experience, and their interests are protected while they study or in the event of provider, campus or course closure.
- Are able to progress into employment or further study, and their qualifications hold their value over time.
- Receive value for money.
Registration in 2020
To be registered with the OfS a provider must, among other things, deliver successful outcomes for all its students, and demonstrate financial sustainability and good governance. To charge higher fees, it must demonstrate that it is working towards eliminating access and participation gaps for disadvantaged groups of students.
Once registered, providers and their students gain a number of benefits. Students can apply for government-backed tuition fee and maintenance loans, and for Disabled Students’ Allowances. A provider can apply to UK Research and Innovation for funding, to the Home Office for a licence to recruit international students, and to the OfS for the right to award degrees and call itself a university.
The OfS Register is a single, authoritative list which assures students and taxpayers that a particular university or college meets minimum requirements across a series of measures which, taken together, mean that it offers high-quality teaching, learning and support for its students. Providers are monitored on an ongoing basis according to the level of risk they pose to students.
In November 2020 there were 414 higher education providers on the OfS Register.45 They reflect the range and diversity of English higher education – a key strength of the system – and include universities, colleges and a variety of other higher education providers, some of them recently established.
The vast majority of registrations took place in the first two years of the OfS’s existence. In 2020, numbers of applications and registrations fell sharply as demand decreased. In March, as the pandemic intensified, we decided to suspend consideration of new registration applications on a temporary basis. The registration process is robust and comprehensive; we need to assure ourselves (and thereby give confidence to students and taxpayers) that applicants meet our conditions of registration, and we did not consider that the rigour required was realistic during the pandemic. At a time when we needed to focus our efforts on responding to the pandemic crisis, we were not able to guarantee this level of scrutiny. We did, however, continue to assess a small number of applications and we have now resumed assessment of paused applications.
Revised approach, March to July 2020: Three primary objectives
As the March 2020 national restrictions began, we set out three objectives to underpin our response. We said we would:
- Support the government's objectives by sharing information with providers and enabling them to respond effectively.
- Protect students by working with providers to develop practical ways to maintain teaching quality and standards, enable adequate exams and assessment, and support financial sustainability.
- Seek to minimise long-term disruption to the English higher education system, reducing permanent damage and laying the foundations for the sector to recover as quickly as possible once the pandemic is over.46
The lack of clarity and general disruption characterising this phase of the pandemic presented enormous challenges for students and providers, as it did for society at large. Decisions had to be taken in the context of limited information, changing government and public health advice as the disease altered course, and the unfolding situation in the sector. To minimise regulatory burden for providers, we significantly reduced our reporting requirements. This allowed us to focus on immediate risks associated with unexpected course or provider closure and short-term financial risk.
A priority for the OfS throughout this period was to ensure that providers maintained teaching quality. Equally pressing, with end-of-year examinations imminent for many students, was the need to ensure assessments and examinations were reliable and standards secure. In June we published guidance for universities and colleges setting out our expectations, including that they should communicate clearly and promptly with their students about changes to the delivery of teaching and assessment.47
The OfS is a principles-based regulator, and this informed our approach. As usual, we were clear in all our communications that we were not prescribing particular approaches or mandating providers to comply with detailed requirements. In a hugely uncertain environment, it was especially important that providers were able to take difficult decisions which reflected their local context and the needs of their students. Our regulatory focus continued to be on outcomes for students – it remained for each higher education provider to determine how best to deliver high-quality teaching, assessment and support. We also made clear that providers making reasonable efforts to do this would not be penalised.
Resetting the regulatory dial
In July 2020, the OfS announced the phased resumption of our regulatory requirements.48 We do not intend to reinstate them exactly as before. Instead, drawing on our experience of the last two years, we shall target our work to ensure that it is focused where it is most needed. Having consulted where appropriate, we intend to publish revised guidance on how we will monitor universities and colleges in relation to our regulatory requirements, and on when and how we may intervene. We also intend to establish a new timeline for our consultation on harassment and sexual misconduct in higher education and start a conversation with students, universities and colleges and others on our emerging regulatory approach to freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Our primary focus is on the conditions relating to access and participation (the ‘A conditions’) and quality and standards (the ‘B conditions’). In practice, this means we want to identify universities and colleges performing below, or close to, the minimum requirements set out in our conditions of registration: in other words, those that pose the greatest risk to students. We then decide whether and how to intervene, depending upon the risks posed. For example, high-quality providers that deliver successful outcomes for students from all backgrounds should experience reduced regulatory burden as a result of our regulation of quality. In the next two chapters we explore in detail our twin approaches to teaching and quality, and access and participation.
In the next two chapters we explore in detail our twin approaches to teaching and quality, and access and participation.
43 OfS, ‘Securing student success: Regulatory framework for higher education in England’, February 2018 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/securing-student-success-regulatory-framework-for-higher-education-in-england/), p23.
44 OfS, ‘Securing student success: Regulatory framework for higher education in England’, February 2018 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/securing-student-success-regulatory-framework-for-higher-education-in-england/), p3.
45 OfS, ‘The OfS Register’, November 2020 (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/the-register/the-ofs-register/).
46 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/).
47 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/).
48 OfS, ‘Regulatory requirements during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’, July 2020 (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/regulatory-requirements-during-the-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic/).