Introducing the OfS’s new proposals on quality and standards

The Office for Students' (OfS) director of regulation Susan Lapworth introduces the next wave of proposed changes to initial and ongoing conditions of regulation

People who work in higher education have long memories. That’s especially true of those who have spent time working on quality.

They will recount the skirmishes of the “quality wars”, debating which committee, body or agency had the upper hand at various points over the decades. Some will even remember subject review with sepia-tinted nostalgia (and I’ll confess to fond memories of that too).

That’s all part of our shared history and it’s important to understand how we got here, if only to make sure we learn the lessons about what works and what doesn’t. But our job at the OfS is to look forward and to regulate in the interests of students and taxpayers now and into the future.

To that end, we’ve published a consultation setting out proposals for new conditions of registration for quality and standards. The proposals clarify the focus of our regulatory interest. We care about high quality courses – the courses themselves, rather than the processes institutions have in place to produce their courses. And we care that rigorous standards are maintained in practice, with degree classifications reflecting student achievement.

So, our proposed conditions cover the academic experience of students – is their course up-to-date, does it provide educational challenge, is it delivered effectively, does it allow them to develop the skills they need for a successful career? The conditions cover assessment – are students assessed effectively, do academic regulations ensure that qualifications are credible to the public? And, of course, they cover the resources and support students from all backgrounds need to have a high quality academic experience in practice, and to succeed in and beyond their course.

It is difficult to argue that these things don’t matter to students. And it is equally difficult to suggest that taxpayers should fund, directly or indirectly, courses that don’t deliver these things. That’s why we think we should regulate to ensure all courses meet these minimum requirements for all students, regardless of what, where and how they study. In that sense, this is not a significant shift from the current regulatory framework – the current B conditions cover the same broad subject matter as the proposed new conditions.

We are, though, signalling a step-change in these proposals. We’re setting out minimum requirements in more detail (as respondents to the first consultation asked us to do) to ensure we can intervene with confidence where there is evidence they may not be met. We would expect to see greater regulatory intervention where the evidence suggests this is necessary, using our investigatory tools and enforcement powers, and being transparent for all stakeholders about the action we take.

We’re encouraging universities and colleges to have their say on our proposals through the consultation process. We don’t expect the proposals to be universally welcomed – regulation is rarely popular with those subject to it – but there are good reasons for institutions to welcome these proposals.

We are proposing a principles-based approach to setting requirements for quality so they can be applied to all institutions and courses. We think this is important because it gives each institution significant latitude to decide the approach it wants to take, rather than needing to follow prescriptive rules that may not be appropriate for its context. To date, the sector hasn’t fully appreciated, or taken advantage of, the latitude available in the OfS’s principles-based regulatory approach.

Our requirements are expressed as minimum baselines. The highest quality institutions should normally expect to meet our minimum requirements comfortably, and should not need to expend significant effort to demonstrate that requirements are satisfied. We would focus regulatory attention on courses falling below our minimum requirements, or where we’re concerned they may do so. In other words, we are determined to be risk-based in both theory and practice in our regulation of quality and standards.

Assessing quality and standards in the higher education sector necessitates drawing on expert academic judgement – matters of curriculum and pedagogy, in particular, are likely to need this input. We have set out in our proposals how we would ensure we have access to such expert advice where this is necessary to support our regulatory decisions.

Much has been written about the OfS’s identity as a data-informed, outcomes-focused, regulator. Today’s proposals underline that that’s only ever been part of the story on quality. We continue to think that the outcomes delivered for students are an important part of the quality of a course – and proposals on our approach to regulating student outcomes are coming in the autumn. But how students get to those outcomes – and the academic experience they have along the way – are also important. This consultation puts the spotlight squarely on those issues. Visible, active regulation demonstrates that they are taken seriously by the regulator. And we think that’s in the interests of all institutions – because it serves to protect the international reputation of the sector within the UK and beyond.

This blog was originally published by Wonke on 20 July 2021

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Published 02 August 2021

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