English higher education 2021: The Office for Students annual review

The 2021 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 2022.

Chair's foreword

Lord Wharton of Yarm, OfS chair

Since beginning my role as chair of the Office for Students (OfS), I have been struck by the higher education sector’s response to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. In a difficult and unprecedented period for the entire country, many universities and colleges, and their students and staff, have truly gone above and beyond. From the medicine and healthcare students serving on the frontline, to the researchers who have developed life-saving vaccines, there is much of which the sector can be proud.

The challenge for the future is simple: to ensure that we continue to have a world-leading higher education sector characterised by high-quality learning and teaching and equality of opportunity. These two priorities are inextricably linked: you cannot have one without the other. Any suggestion that quality must be sacrificed to enhance equality, or vice versa, does a disservice to both students and the sector as a whole.

The forthcoming launch of the second OfS strategy heralds a new era for us as a regulator, one in which we will be more assertive in intervening to ensure that universities and colleges uphold their obligations. The pandemic has brought to the fore many of the positives of higher education in England. However, where there are pockets of poor-quality provision failing to deliver positive outcomes for students, the OfS is committed to using the regulatory tools at its disposal.

It is crucial that universities and colleges deliver the student experience that is promised, and that students leave higher education equipped with the skills they need to thrive. One course that fails to deliver positive outcomes for students is one course too many. Similarly, universities and colleges where there is rapid and unjustified grade inflation must be challenged to provide, instead, meaningful and long-lasting positive outcomes for students through high-quality provision.

While the higher education sector in England has made significant strides in relation to equality of opportunity, there is still more that must be done. As the universities minister noted in recent statutory guidance, large groups, such as white working-class boys, are still woefully underrepresented. We must additionally now be alert to the uneven effects of the pandemic, where already disadvantaged students have been hit hardest. There is also the challenge of tackling regional inequalities. Our data shows that participation rates are lower for students from coastal regions, and parts of the north and midlands. Well paid graduate employment is concentrated in London and the south east. As we recover from the pandemic, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that ‘where you are from’ continues to matter less, and ‘what you can offer’ continues to matter more.

The next OfS strategy will be ambitious, but ambition need not and will not lead to unnecessary regulatory burden for the sector. It is our intention that universities and colleges should be enabled to achieve their ambitions free from unnecessary red tape, so long as they continue to meet the OfS’s baseline requirements. As a regulator, we will take a risk-based approach to ensure that those providers that meet their obligations are given the space and autonomy needed to innovate and excel. The past 12 months have shown what English higher education is capable of at its best; it is in that spirit that we set out our goals for the future.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to Chris Millward, who stands down as Director for Fair Access and Participation at the end of this year. Chris has led our work on access and participation with authority and dedication since the setup of the OfS. I would also like to thank our chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, who will be stepping down from May 2022. The achievements of the last year set out in this review, and the establishment of the OfS as an effective higher education regulator, would not have been possible without Nicola’s leadership. She continues to serve as an outstanding chief executive, working diligently to ensure the OfS does everything it can to protect the interests of students. My thanks to Nicola and Chris for their contributions and my best wishes to them for the future.


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

This year marks the end of our first OfS strategy. Since we opened for business in 2018, we have established a new regulatory model that has consistently prioritised the interests of current and future students and, notwithstanding an exceptionally challenging external environment, enabled a diversity of universities and colleges to thrive.

Establishing a new regulatory model that works for the 418 providers that we have registered to date was no easy task. The very diversity that is the strength of our English higher education sector makes regulating according to a single framework challenging. Nonetheless, we are confident that the model that we have developed will deliver the high quality, and equality of opportunity, that every student has the right to expect.

This last year was again dominated by the pandemic. At the beginning of 2021, we were still in lockdown, with the majority of students learning remotely and unable to access the campus. During the year, as the vaccine rollout extended to all staff and students, the focus shifted to how to return to something approximating normal. Whether in lockdown or emerging from it, the resilience of students, staff, and indeed everyone involved in their higher education communities, has been truly remarkable.

The OfS’s initial response to the pandemic was to adjust our regulatory requirements to allow universities and colleges the space to focus on the public health emergency. During the course of last year, in anticipation of returning to our usual regulatory approach, we began to reset our ambitions on quality and standards. In doing this we signalled our ambition to raise the bar significantly on this fundamental issue, as well as making clear that we expected universities and colleges to honour the commitments they made in their access and participation plans. We have taken action as a result of a range of notifications received from students, particularly where they have not received the teaching or broader experience that were promised to them. We also closely monitored the finances of providers, which continue to hold up well despite the gloomy predictions many offered at the start of the pandemic.

The consultation for our new strategy, covering 2022 to 2025 and published in November, sets out our two priorities of quality and standards and equality of opportunity. The quality of courses in England is generally good, with many examples of truly outstanding provision. Where universities and colleges offer high-quality courses, we want to minimise our regulatory involvement with them, allowing them to flourish, innovate, and determine their own priorities for their students. But there are still too many students on courses where quality is poor, dropout rates are high, and the chances of securing a good degree or finding professional employment are not what students want or expect. Similarly, substantial progress has been made on improving fair access and student success in recent years, but too many talented people still find their background blocks them from succeeding. There is much more to do, and our new strategy will map out how we will address these matters.

In our new strategy we will continue to work collaboratively with stakeholders and partners, particularly UK Research and Innovation, with whom we have many common areas of interest and concern, for instance in relation to postgraduate students. We also will continue liaising closely with our counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure appropriate coordination of our different policies and approaches.

England’s higher education system is rightly admired around the world. It remains an attractive destination for international students, and young people took up places this year at greater rates than ever before. There is plenty to celebrate, and many reasons to be hopeful as we look ahead to 2022.

Maintaining and raising quality during the pandemic

Ensuring that quality was maintained for students during the pandemic was challenging: universities and colleges were operating in uncharted territory in switching to largely online provision. Our focus was on ensuring that, whether online or face-to-face, quality was maintained. We intervened in a number of cases. Although we decided that in the circumstances it was not appropriate to publish details of those interventions, we were clear about what we expected of providers, particularly the importance of clear communications with students about what they should expect, the need to consult them about changes, and the need to deliver on what had been promised.

Notwithstanding the efforts of universities and colleges, the consequences of the pandemic for individual students have been profound. Many have lost relatives or friends to the disease. Some will have been unwell themselves, or found that their mental health and wellbeing were affected. All were forced to get used to an entirely changed world that has affected their courses and restricted their lives – whether they were mature students who juggled their courses with home-schooling their children, or young students whose on-campus experience was entirely different from anything they had imagined.

Many universities and colleges successfully developed and refined their online offering over the last year. However, the 2021 National Student Survey outcomes showed a fall in students’ agreement with positive statements about their experience. Students have overwhelmingly made clear their desire to return to largely in-person learning. This became more possible in 2021. Students on practical courses were increasingly able to return to laboratories and studios, and as the new academic year began this autumn we saw in-person teaching restored more widely.

There is, however, much to be learnt from how universities and colleges reshaped their curricula and pedagogy during the early throes of the pandemic. Sir Michael Barber’s report on digital teaching and learning, published in March, set out some of the ways in which higher education teaching may change in the short, medium and long terms, partly as a consequence of the pandemic.1 The challenge for all of us now is to identify what was best about the online experience that was so abruptly forced on us, and expand and build on it imaginatively and collaboratively, while resuming the in-person experience that students tell us is so important to them. For now, the focus of the OfS’s regulation will continue to be on the quality of provision, however it is delivered.

We have, over this year, been engaged in a range of consultative work on the future regulation of quality and standards. Some of this has provoked quite a debate, and we have adjusted our plans as a result of feedback we have received. It is important to emphasise again that we expect the majority of registered providers to comfortably outperform the requirements we set in our quality conditions: there will not be armies of OfS inspectors assessing teaching quality, creating rafts of additional bureaucracy. Many providers that we regulate already offer good or outstanding higher education and will be left to get on with what they are already doing well.

What we cannot do is tolerate the minority of providers that are letting students down. Nobody embarks on a higher education course expecting to find it uninspiring and of poor quality, so that they end up dropping out, or to be unable to find employment afterwards. Universities and colleges heavily promote the quality of their courses and the employment prospects of their graduates in their marketing; they know how important these are to their students. So courses that offer little to students will have to change, or they will have to close. We are also clear that we will not accept pockets of poor provision in otherwise high-performing providers, nor lower expectations for certain groups of students.

We will continue to engage productively with the sector on these issues. We will also make sure that students have access to the information they need to make decisions about what courses may be right for them. Discover Uni offers helpful course comparison tools, while our new Proceed measure, published in May, sheds light on how likely new entrants to degree courses at individual universities and colleges are to complete their course and go on to further study or find employment at a professional level. This is information that matters to students and the public.

Providing degrees that last

Students deserve and expect to be awarded a degree which stands the test of time. Similarly, employers need assurance that the graduates they take on will be well qualified. YouGov employer polling for the OfS shows that almost a third of respondents are only sometimes able to recruit the quality of graduates they want, while a 2019 survey by the Confederation of British Industry found a quarter of respondents dissatisfied with the literacy and numeracy skills of young people leaving education.2 Other research has found that weak literacy skills are relatively common among graduates in England, and that poor literacy may keep graduates in jobs that school leavers could do.3

These statistics will have been influenced by a range of factors. Nonetheless, higher education providers are responsible for their graduates, and the polling and research results sit uncomfortably with the increasing proportion of high grades awarded to graduates in England. Figures published in January showed a further jump in the proportion of first-class degrees awarded in 2020, following a levelling off in 2019, though this may be a consequence of the impact of the pandemic.4 We know that as a result of the pandemic a number of universities and colleges made changes to their assessment polices, with ‘no detriment’ policies ensuring students on course for a 1st did not see their final grade drop. Even so, the stark reality is that the proportion of 1sts has more than doubled in the last decade. OfS analysis of results up to 2019, which takes into account a range of factors that could drive an increase in the top grades, finds a large proportion of this increase is unexplained by changes in the graduate population.5 While this does not rule out the explanation that improved teaching and learning have driven some of this increase, it is unlikely that this accounts for it all.

Universities had begun to take steps to address this sector-wide problem, and the figures from 2019 showed that the tanker, if not turned, had at least been slowed. 2020 will always be anomalous and the impact of the pandemic will continue to be one aspect of our regulatory consideration of these issues.

However, it is essential that assessments in the coming years remain fair to everyone, present an accurate picture of students’ achievement, and are credible in the eyes of the public and employers. We have been clear that we are ready to act where standards are not maintained, and our new proposed quality conditions would give us clear powers to do so.

Equality of opportunity

We continue to prioritise our work to secure equality of opportunity. Despite progress, stubborn gaps in terms of both access and success mean that talented people still miss out on the life-changing opportunities higher education can bring.

The access and participation plans agreed by Chris Millward, who leaves his role as Director for Fair Access and Participation at the end of the year, demonstrate a step up in ambition that would mean their successful delivery would transform thousands of lives. The increased ambition of universities and colleges is testament to the influence Chris has had, through his determined, informed and thoughtful way of working. He has done much to highlight some of the most persistent gaps in access and outcomes, as well as being a powerful advocate for the need for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to be properly supported so that their efforts can be fully realised when they are at university and after they graduate.

We now look forward to welcoming John Blake, who will be taking over from Chris as Director for Fair Access and Participation from January 2022. John will join us with a wealth of experience in the schools sector, enabling a greater focus on how universities and colleges can work even more closely and productively with the school and college sectors to address equality of opportunity.

Despite the progress that has been made, John inherits one of the most challenging problems in higher education. It is self-evident that where you live, the school you go to, and what your parents do for a living should not be a barrier to success in life. At the same time, we know that too often where you come from determines where you will end up in life.

Higher education participation is especially low among certain groups – white students who have been eligible for free school meals, young people who have been in care, those from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.6 The important role of place has threaded itself through the access debate over the course of the last year, highlighting the areas of low participation concentrated in towns and parts of cities in the North and Midlands, and in coastal regions.7

We know that opportunities remain unequal as students progress. OfS analysis published in June found that the areas of highest-paying graduate roles were concentrated in London and the South East.8 While some graduates have always moved to London early in their career – and probably always will – this should never be a requirement to find a good job. The OfS’s local graduates programme continues to fund projects to help boost opportunities for graduates who want or need to live in the areas where they grew up or went to university.

We also know that fewer mature students have been accessing higher education during the last decade, and that the poor availability of flexible learning has contributed to this.9 As part of the government’s proposals to encourage lifelong learning, and in preparation for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, the Department for Education asked the OfS to launch a challenge competition aimed at testing student and employer demand for new short courses to address employer skills needs. The £2 million competition was closed in September, and bids are now being assessed. The first courses are expected to be available from September 2022.

As well as regional differences, there continue to be gaps between different groups of students. Black students, for example, are less likely to continue their studies, less likely to graduate with a 1st or 2:1, and less likely to find graduate-level employment.10 This waste of talent not only affects individuals’ life chances, but diminishes society as a whole.

While the awarding gap between black and white students closed by four percentage points between 2018-19 and 2019-20, it is impossible to say how far changes in assessment practices in response to the pandemic contributed to this. The targets we have set in this area demand urgent action as we seek to eliminate the unexplained gap in degree attainment between white and black students by 2024-25, and remove the absolute gap within a decade.11

Not a zero-sum game

Some suggest that improving equality of opportunity and driving up quality and standards are mutually exclusive. The argument is that universities and colleges with a high proportion of students from underrepresented groups should not be held to the same standards as those that recruit primarily from higher education’s traditional constituencies. This amounts, however, to suggesting that students who are already disadvantaged should be expected to accept lower quality and weaker outcomes. We have always maintained that this is unacceptable.

Instead, we take the view that quality, and equality of opportunity, are closely linked and mutually enforcing. Improving equality of opportunity without maintaining quality and standards will not lead to positive student outcomes. Likewise, maintaining quality and standards without improving equality of opportunity means excluding students who would stand to benefit in a fairer system. We will always take context into account in our regulation, but not if that involves embedding disadvantage into our regulatory system.

Financial sustainability

Despite the many operational and financial challenges arising from the pandemic, the overall financial position of universities, colleges and other providers registered with the OfS across the higher education sector has remained sound over the course of the last year, with generally reasonable financial resilience.12 This is testament to the fact that providers went into the pandemic in reasonable financial shape, and have managed the unprecedented circumstances well, even though in many cases they saw income from some sources plummet.

This sector-wide position should not disguise either the considerable variation between providers or the challenging and uncertain financial future facing the sector as a whole. Universities and colleges will need to continue to adapt to uncertainties and financial risks to protect their longer-term sustainability. For the OfS, we will carry on monitoring financial sustainability closely, identifying the signals and indicators of financial weakness and intervening when required.

Innovation, autonomy and regulatory burden

The OfS’s risk-based approach to regulation is designed to ensure that universities and colleges that satisfy our minimum requirements are able to flourish and determine their own path. We want to stay out of their way, allowing them to innovate and to continue providing an outstanding academic experience for their students.

At the same time we are committed to reducing regulatory burden. The move to five-year access and participation plans, for example, allows universities and colleges to plan strategically, rather than be stuck in a never-ending cycle of writing next year’s plan. With the initial registration period completed, we have removed many enhanced monitoring requirements, have suspended plans to use random sampling of providers, and are building a focus on burden reduction into all our activities.

We have also listened to feedback from universities and colleges about the way we communicate with them. We are seeking to ensure clarity, and have grouped major consultations and publications so that our communications are streamlined.

The OfS’s priorities for 2022

As I reflect on this last year and look forward to next year, I am mindful of the fact that I will be standing down as chief executive of the OfS at the end of April 2022. The new chief executive will clearly want to stamp their own mark on our strategy and plans for the future. Nonetheless, whoever takes over at the helm, the three themes of quality, equality of opportunity and tackling harassment will undoubtedly play a central role in our work next year.


The proposal in our new strategy consultation is that we should continue to prioritise our work on quality and standards, as well as seeking to ensure equality of opportunity for all students, whatever their background.

On quality, we have been through a period of thorough consultation and analysis, which will have lasted well over a year. On such a fundamental issue, it is important that we can be sure we have tested and sought views from as wide a range of people and organisations as possible, on both the broad principles and the fine details of our proposals. We will set out our final position early in 2022.

While we will carefully analyse and consider all responses to our quality consultations, we have been clear that taking action on low-quality courses is a priority. We are confident that the measures we propose will raise quality, without contributing extra burden to the many universities and colleges that comfortably meet our expectations.

Equality of opportunity

John Blake will also want to set out his priorities as Director for Fair Access and Participation early in the new year. We do know, though, that students entering university straight from school or college will have faced unprecedented disruption to their education due to the pandemic. This applies to those still in primary school, right through to students applying now for courses that start in 2022. Research shows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately hit by the disruption to their education caused by the lockdowns. Close work with schools and communities to help raise awareness, aspirations and expectations will inform our work over the course of the next year, and will help to ensure that the disrupted generation does not become the disadvantaged generation.

Harassment and sexual misconduct

Next year we will consider how universities and colleges have responded to our statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct. The facts are stark and disturbing. We know that full-time students are more likely to experience sexual assault than those in any other occupational group, and a study of over 5,500 students found that nearly half of women had been touched inappropriately.13 A quarter of students from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have experienced racial harassment.14 One in three Muslim students have experienced some type of abuse or hate crime where they study, while an investigation found 123 antisemitic incidents affecting Jewish students, academics and student bodies between 2018-19 and 2019-20.15

That universities and colleges tackle and respond effectively to harassment and sexual misconduct is fundamental to ensuring that students are successful in their studies. Our statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct, published in April this year, set out the policies and procedures universities and colleges should have in place to prevent harassment from occurring in the first place, and to ensure an appropriate and effective response if it does happen. We will be reviewing providers’ and students’ responses in 2022, and then determine how to deliver the change needed in this area most effectively.

Universities and colleges face an uncertain policy environment in 2022. As I write, important legislation relating to skills and freedom of speech continues to progress through parliament. But whatever policy changes may occur, higher education in England will continue to flourish, offering outstanding education and life-changing opportunities for students and enabling them to contribute enormously to their communities and the country’s wider economic and social wellbeing. Although I will be leaving, I know that my successor and the outstanding team at the OfS will continue to work to make sure that all students, whatever their background and wherever and however they study, have an experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.

1 OfS, ‘All content about the Digital teaching and learning review’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/teaching/digital-teaching-and-learning-review/).

2 OfS, ‘Key performance measure 16’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/about/measures-of-our-success/outcomes-performance-measures/employers-think-that-graduates-are-equipped-with-the-required-skills-and-knowledge/); Confederation of British Industry, ‘Education and learning for the modern world: CBI/Pearson 2019 education and skills survey report’ (available at www.cbi.org.uk/articles/education-and-learning-for-the-modern-world/).

3 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ‘Building skills for all: A review of England’ (available at https://skillspanorama.cedefop.europa.eu/en/useful_resources/building-skills-all-review-england); Woolcock, Nicola, ‘Graduates “lack basic maths and literacy skills”’, The Times, 12 September 2018 (available at www.thetimes.co.uk/article/graduates-lack-basic-maths-and-literacy-skills-bwj37zlcs).

4 OfS, ‘Official statistic: Key performance measure 18’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/about/measures-of-our-success/outcomes-performance-measures/students-achieving-1sts/).

OfS, ‘Analysis of degree classifications over time: Changes in graduate attainment from 2010-11 to 2018-19’ (OfS 2020.52, available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/analysis-of-degree-classifications-over-time-changes-in-graduate-attainment-from-2010-11-to-2018-19/), pp13-14.

6 Gov.UK, ‘Explore education statistics: Academic year 2019-20 – Widening participation in higher education’ (available at https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/widening-participation-in-higher-education).

7 OfS, ‘White students who are left behind: The importance of place’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/blog/white-students-who-are-left-behind-the-importance-of-place/).

8 OfS, ‘A geography of employment and earnings’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/a-geography-of-employment-and-earnings/).

9 OfS, ‘Improving opportunity and choice for mature students’ (OfS Insight #9, available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/improving-opportunity-and-choice-for-mature-students/).

10 OfS, ‘Access and participation data dashboard: Findings from the data’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/access-and-participation-data-dashboard/findings-from-the-data/).

11 OfS, ‘Official statistic: Key performance measure 4’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/about/measures-of-our-success/participation-performance-measures/gap-in-degree-outcomes-1sts-or-21s-between-white-students-and-black-students/).

12 OfS, ‘Financial sustainability of higher education providers in England’ (OfS 2021.20, available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/financial-sustainability-of-higher-education-providers-in-england-2021/).

13 Brook, ‘Our new research on sexual harassment and violence at UK universities’ (available at https://legacy.brook.org.uk/press-releases/sexual-violence-and-harassment-remains-rife-in-universities-according-to-ne).

14 Equality and Human Rights Commission, ‘Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged’ (available at https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/tackling-racial-harassment-universities-challenged), p26.

15 NUS Connect, ‘The experience of Muslim students in 2017-18’ (available at https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/the-experience-of-muslim-students-in-2017-18); Community Security Trust, ‘Campus Antisemitism in Britain 2018-20’ (available at https://cst.org.uk/news/blog/2020/12/17/campus-antisemitism-in-britain-2018-2020).

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Published 01 December 2021

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