English higher education 2021: The Office for Students annual review

A new approach to regulating quality and standards

Quality and standards matter to students. High-quality teaching and learning, and a credible qualification, are among the most important things they expect from their degree. As part of our phased resumption of regulatory requirements following the pandemic, the OfS launched a major series of consultations to reset our approach to quality and standards. In doing this, our primary focus is on those universities and colleges most at risk of breaching our conditions of registration, to ensure their students receive a high-quality education and successful outcomes.

The future of quality and standards in English higher education

In the early part of 2021, the OfS consulted on its broad approach to quality and standards. In doing this, we signalled our intention to prioritise clarity and transparency, communication and engagement, and reduction of regulatory burden. In formulating the consultation proposals, we drew on our experience of implementing the new regulatory system since the OfS’s establishment in 2018, the shift from registering providers to a ‘steady state’ of monitoring and intervention activity, and our experience of regulating during the pandemic.

Our work on quality and standards starts from the premise that all students are entitled to the same minimum level of quality. We do not accept that students from underrepresented groups should be expected to accept lower quality and weaker outcomes than other students. Nor do we embed their disadvantage into the regulatory system by setting lower minimum requirements for universities that typically recruit these types of students.1 Regulating minimum requirements for quality and standards safeguards both quality and equality of opportunity, because it ensures that all students (including those with protected characteristics) receive an education that meets these requirements. It is a mutually reinforcing relationship. Both need to be protected and promoted if we are to achieve our aim of ensuring positive outcomes for all students, whatever their background.

This approach is underpinned by a commitment to reducing burden on providers that do not pose specific increased risk, by targeting our activity where it is most needed. Many universities and colleges in England offer high-quality courses and teaching, and will comfortably meet our minimum requirements. Our focus is, rather, on those offering low-quality courses and declining standards that do not offer value for money for students nor taxpayers. Our proposals for change aim to pave the way for the OfS to intervene swiftly, decisively and transparently to protect students from such practices, working where appropriate with our designated quality body, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

A new approach

The responses to our consultation on our broad approach to quality and standards were analysed in the early part of the year. That analysis informed a further consultation published in July 2021, which set out proposals for more detailed conditions of registration – the new B conditions.2 These comprise:

  • Condition B1, which would mandate a high-quality academic experience in which courses are up-to-date and effectively delivered, and provide educational challenge
  • Condition B2, which would require all students to receive the resources and support they need to succeed
  • Condition B4, which would require students to be assessed effectively and receive credible qualifications that stand the test of time
  • Condition B5, which would ensure that standards are consistent with sector-recognised standards.

We are now analysing the results of that consultation, and expect to publish the outcomes in early 2022. Our regulation of quality is also concerned with the outcomes higher education delivers for students: Did they complete their course? What did their progression to employment or further study look like? These are important elements in assessing the quality of a course. 

In January, we will be publishing a further consultation setting out more detailed proposals for our condition of registration B3, relating to student outcomes.

Excellence above the baseline: The TEF

Above the baseline regulatory requirements, one of the main ways in which we seek to incentivise universities and colleges to improve their teaching and learning is through the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). This gives universities and colleges the freedom to innovate and pursue excellence as they see fit, reflecting the character of their own students, subjects and provision. It reflects the diverse and autonomous nature of the sector we regulate and helps to maintain and strengthen its world-leading international reputation.3

In tandem with our consultation on regulating student outcomes, we will be consulting on the future development of the TEF and its quality metrics.4 The intention is that the criteria of the TEF, applying above the baseline, will be coherent and consistent with our regulatory baseline requirements. We are also seeking to ensure consistency between the data and indicators that underpin both our regulation of student outcomes and the TEF.

Our proposals will be informed by evidence from previous TEF exercises and the independent review by Dame Shirley Pearce, as well as the findings of our own subject-level TEF pilots. Drawing on this evidence, we are proposing that each university or college would be rated as a whole, rather than giving ratings by subject. A provider’s overall rating would take into account the quality of teaching and student outcomes across the full spectrum of its undergraduate courses. The Pearce review did, however, recommend that there could be an important role for highlighting the evidence of quality at subject level, and this consideration will be directly reflected in our proposals.

Transnational education

The OfS’s remit extends beyond students studying in England, to the 360,000 students studying around the world for qualifications offered by English universities. The reputation of our higher education sector continues to attract students from across the globe, and many higher education providers have established a range of partnerships for transnational education (TNE). These can increase innovation and diversity in teaching and research, while supporting student and staff mobility.

It is our role to protect the interests of anyone studying for a qualification issued by an English provider, at home or abroad. TNE students are entitled to the same quality and standards as those in the UK, and we should seek out and improve poor-quality courses wherever their students are based. In our quality and standards consultation, we were explicit that our proposals would mean that all courses would be subject to the same minimum requirements.5

From 2022 we plan to use and publish data and case studies to explore the size and shape of English TNE in more depth. Later work will focus more closely on particular territories, types of course or delivery approaches. We will also consider how we can bring the data we collect about TNE students in line with that for UK-based students.6

We will work to raise the regulatory profile of the OfS beyond the UK, and to increase understanding of how our approach to TNE fits within the UK’s wider approach. This includes targeted engagement with government and regulatory bodies and representative groups.

Protecting standards in higher education: Contract cheating

The past year has seen renewed concern about students’ use of essay mills – businesses offering essay-writing services to students for a fee. Universities and colleges have policies in place to identify and respond to cheating in assessment, and the consequences for students can be severe, including expulsion. Those who escape detection miss out on valuable learning and the chance to practice key skills, and may fall behind in their studies.

The shift to online learning and assessment has led to more and more sophisticated sites targeting students in England in this way.7 In October 2021 the government signalled its intention to make it a criminal offence to provide, arrange or advertise these cheating services to students for financial gain, and we are working with the Department for Education and sector bodies to address the issue.8 We are considering how our other powers might be brought to bear on the problem.

Freedom of speech and academic freedom

Our existing regulatory requirements on free speech and academic freedom are embodied in our public interest governance principles, with which all registered providers must comply. These provisions include requiring universities and colleges to have systems in place to make good decisions on matters relating to free speech and academic freedom.

In May the government introduced the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill into parliament. If passed, the bill would strengthen the legal duties on higher education providers and make significant changes to the regulation of free speech within providers and their students’ unions. It would give the OfS the responsibility for resolving complaints about free speech or academic freedom from individual staff, students or visitors. We will work with the government to implement any changes that result from new legislation.

Pending any changes resulting from new legislation, we intend to continue using our existing regulatory approach. Where universities or colleges are not meeting our existing regulatory requirements, we will intervene. In doing so, we will raise awareness of areas that give rise to regulatory concern, and encourage compliance across the sector.

1 Our work with universities and colleges to improve access to higher education for underrepresented groups, and to narrow the gaps between the outcomes achieved for these students and the most advantaged, is discussed in Chapter 5.

2 OfS, ‘Prevent monitoring: Summary of annual accountability and data returns – 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20’ (OfS 2021.37, available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/consultation-on-quality-and-standards-conditions/).

3 See Part 1 of OfS, ‘Securing student success: Regulatory framework for higher education in England’ (OfS 2018.01, available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/securing-student-success-regulatory-framework-for-higher-education-in-england/). For a discussion of the OfS’s principles-based approach, see OfS. ‘A matter of principles: Regulating in the student interest’ (OfS Insight #7, available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/a-matter-of-principles-regulating-in-the-student-interest/).

4 OfS, ‘TEF: Update on the development of proposals for the future exercise’ (available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/tef-update-on-the-development-of-proposals-for-the-future-exercise/).

5 OfS, ‘Consultation on quality and standards conditions’ (OfS 2021.24, available at www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/consultation-on-quality-and-standards-conditions/).

6 OfS, ‘Offshore opportunity: protecting students in transnational education’ (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/blog/offshore-opportunity-protecting-students-in-transnational-education/).

7 See figures from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, quoted in Hansard volume 689 (https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2021-02-10/debates/5E37B30F-EFD9-40A2-AA28-5D05327A7596/EssayMills(Prohibition)).

8 Gov.UK, ‘Essay mills to be banned under plans to reform post-16 education’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/essay-mills-to-be-banned-under-plans-to-reform-post-16-education). This applies specifically to students taking a qualification at any institution in England providing post-16 education, including universities.

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Published 01 December 2021

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