Building the regulatory picture: understanding student experiences and concerns

Students are experts in the higher education experience and their feedback helps build our understanding of the sector. But students should also be empowered to make the most of regulation.

Students bring their own understanding of higher education to the OfS’s work, helping us regulate in students’ interest and increasing our understanding of what is happening in universities and colleges. We want to tap into that expertise, combining it with the quantitative data we hold to build a fuller picture. Who better to tell us if the universities and colleges we regulate are meeting our requirements in practice (or not) than students and graduates themselves?

We make regulatory decisions based on a range of data and intelligence about higher education which helps us understand individual universities and colleges and the sector as a whole. This helps us approach our regulation in a proportionate and risk-based way.

There is one part of the evidence base that should be improved. We think that students should more easily be able to tell us about their experiences on the ground.

Gathering information through notifications

Our main way of understanding and gathering information from students (as well as other third parties) is notifications. They are a direct route for anyone to give us information, relating to our regulatory interests, that we might not receive from universities and colleges directly.

Notifications can come from students or staff at universities and colleges, or the general public and are a way to let us know about how a provider is performing against our ongoing conditions of registration. We welcome notifications on issues relating to management and governance; consumer protection; how students' complaints are being considered; fairness and equality; and quality and standards.

Anyone can submit a notification – including current and previous students, home or international – as long as the university or college is registered with the OfS. Every notification we receive is logged and assessed. If it suggests that there may be a breach of our conditions of registration, we may intervene.

Spreading the word – and listening to feedback

We know that it hasn’t always been obvious to students and their representatives exactly how notifications work or what types of notifications are likely to be followed up. It’s important that students, students’ unions (SUs) and student representatives understand what we do, how we do it and what they can tell us about. This is why in January, with support from our student panel chair Martha Longdon, we published our Guide to OfS Notifications for Students, Students’ Unions and Student Representatives.

Following the publication of our guide, we ran three online discussion sessions to help students and SUs understand OfS notifications and to consider how to use the guide in practice. We worked through examples of notifications, how SUs and students could use the process and the kinds of issues that we would want to know about. We hoped that the sessions would be informative and empowering for the students and SUs who attended and that they would leave with a better understanding of the OfS and notifications.

Students and SUs who attended said they appreciated being able to have such an open, honest and informal discussion with the OfS about a very accessible guide. This was good to hear, and students told us that they would like to see the OfS doing more of these kinds of sessions around key policy developments and publications.

Supporting and empowering students and their representatives

The most powerful theme emerging from the workshops related to how we can support and empower SUs to use regulation as part of their discussions with their university or college. Part of this means the OfS understanding that SUs will need to maintain and positively develop their relationships with their provider. We need to continue to be aware of, and understand, possible tensions and avoid damaging existing partnerships.

Students and SUs told us that it was helpful to have the OfS behind them. They agreed that while working in partnership with their university or college should always be the preferred option, it was good to know more about the regulator and to have another path to advocate for change or raise concerns.

Attendees at the workshops felt reassured to know that the OfS was interested in picking up patterns through the data we hold, and that we could use this to understand more about the student experience in individual providers and beyond.

SU officers were also really keen to increase their understanding about the OfS to ensure that they have the most accurate knowledge to help them negotiate and work in partnership with their university or college. It was great to hear this and to know that the guide could support students and SUs in this way.

Next steps – providing more information and expertise

It was clear that students and SUs want more support and guidance from the OfS about how they can use our regulatory framework to ensure that students are actively involved in developing change at their university or college. We see this as providing students and SUs with more information and expertise about the regulatory environment to empower them to work closely with their provider.

Later this year, we will be publishing more guidance for students and SUs. We’ll also be working with SUs throughout the summer to offer training and resources for SU officers on what the OfS is, what we do and how regulation can support them in their advocacy for students.

If your university, college, students’ union, guild or association is running an event for students’ union officers or student representatives in your region, and would like us to come and run a workshop, do get in touch at [email protected].


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Published 22 April 2021

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