It is not in the interests of institutions with high-quality provision to offer courses that fall short of the mark, says Office for Students (OfS) chair Lord Wharton.
Students embark on higher education with significant expectations regarding the impact their course will have on the rest of their lives. They want to be taught well on courses that challenge them educationally, offer the latest resources and leave them well prepared for life after graduation. They want the assurance of a qualification that is a passport to the world of work and – crucially – whose value will be recognised throughout their career. That should apply to students on every course across England.
The OfS has launched a major consultation on quality and standards in English higher education, which sets out clear expectations for the universities, colleges and other higher education providers we regulate. Vice-chancellors and principals should be clear that the consultation proposes a step change in our regulation, paving the way for the OfS to intervene swiftly, decisively and transparently where we find examples of poor quality or falling standards.
These issues will be central to my tenure as chair of the OfS. What could be more fundamentally important for students than the guarantee that they will receive a high-quality higher education experience? This is at the core of the OfS’ work to protect the interests of students from all backgrounds.
What does this all mean in practice? The reality for many providers is very little. Higher education in England is often excellent, with continued demand from students, both domestic and international. The OfS remains committed to risk-based regulation and we would expect the highest-quality universities and colleges to comfortably meet the minimum requirements we propose today. They will not feel increased regulatory burden and will be allowed to get on with what they do best.
The aim of our proposals is to drive up quality in those areas that do not meet our requirements. Too often, those courses leave students and graduates wondering why they’ve bothered. The OfS won’t make any excuses for vigorously regulating providers offering low-quality courses that do not offer value for money for students nor taxpayers. So where quality is low, my message to these institutions is simple. You must improve. And if you do not, the OfS is ready to intervene.
We understand that these proposals are likely to generate comment in the sector, and we welcome that discussion and debate. We may hear the voices of those who would rather that higher education was entirely free from regulation. That is not a viable option for a sector receiving billions of pounds of public money annually.
Other voices will share useful and important contributions on the direction and detail of our plans. Whatever views are expressed – and from wherever they come – we commit to listening carefully and reflecting on our proposed approach thoroughly.
Fundamentally, though, I believe that these are proposals that universities and colleges can get behind. It is not in the interests of institutions providing high-quality courses for others to offer courses that fall short of the mark. Nor is it in their interests for some providers to let grade inflation spiral while others take the tough decisions needed to ensure that the value of a first-class degree is maintained.
Now – more than ever – universities and colleges in England need to demonstrate the tremendous value they offer to our economy and communities. By standing up for high-quality courses that stand the test of time, they can do just that.
This was originally published by Times Higher Education on 20 July 2021.