In January, I committed to refreshing our engagement with universities and colleges. We had commissioned a report by Shift Learning which told us that, though providers valued existing communication channels, they wanted more personal interactions with OfS staff and a greater recognition of the different circumstances in which they were operating.
In response to these recommendations, we:
- Piloted a programme of visits to providers to meet staff and students from universities and colleges across England. My OfS colleagues have appreciated the opportunity to engage with a range of providers and I’ve been pleased to hear positive feedback from those visited about the experience. We’ve also heard first-hand from students on the issues they think are important – a really important part of our job.
- Publicised more extensively the named OfS contacts for each provider, to ensure that they know who to contact with any questions about their ongoing registration with the OfS.
- Expanded our engagement with accountable officers. I now host quarterly online briefings for accountable officers, to share information about our current work and priorities. We’re also developing further opportunities for conversations with, and support for, new accountable officers.
- Developed our approach to consultations. Feedback suggested that providers would like our consultations to be staggered, and for consultations to include executive summaries. Though it isn’t always going to be possible to stagger our consultations, since January we’ve published four new consultations, which have been spread throughout the year. All consultations now include an executive summary to provide a concise and accessible overview of the proposals. We’ve also extended the length of time consultations are open where possible – for example our recent consultation on the inclusion of higher technical qualifications in our student outcome measures will be open for 15 weeks.
- Reviewed how we present information on our website for providers. We want to ensure that information about our regulatory approach and requirements is easily accessible for providers. So we’re reviewing how we present core regulatory information on our website, and developing a digitised version of the regulatory framework itself to ensure providers can find the content they need. We expect to make changes to our website later this year.
What are we learning from our engagement?
Our increased engagement with providers has been incredibly useful in developing OfS colleagues’ understanding of the issues facing the sector – and visiting a wide range of providers has allowed us to hear views from across our diverse sector.
Themes from meetings with staff at providers have included:
- interest in new areas of our work, including our approach to regulating harassment and sexual misconduct and what that might mean for providers
- providers’ plans to diversify their provision, including the introduction of degree apprenticeships
- concerns about financial sustainability, including cost of living pressures
- discussions about local partnerships, such as with other providers and local employers.
We’ve heard ideas about how we could further reduce unnecessary regulatory burden for providers. Specific examples of where regulation causes unnecessary difficulty are always helpful and our new Director of Regulation, Philippa Pickford, will be picking up this conversation with the sector over the coming months.
Visits have also provided valuable feedback on our refreshed approach to engagement. For example, on a recent visit, I heard that new accountable officers would welcome early engagement with us. In response, we now offer an introductory meeting or phone call with the senior OfS contact for that provider to discuss our approach to regulation and answer any questions. We’re also piloting an in-person event for new accountable officers to give a more in-depth introduction to our work, and to bring accountable officers together from across the sector.
Following the success of our pilot, we’ve decided to roll out a further programme of visits in this academic year – we’ve already sent out invitations for visits in the autumn. And I’m keen to ensure that we’re using what we learn to inform our future thinking about how we regulate.
I’m also looking forward to talking with accountable officers at our online briefing next week. Some attendees at the last briefing expressed a desire to hear more about our future plans, particularly in relation to our new freedom of speech work. So our new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, Arif Ahmed, will be joining me, to introduce himself and share our current thinking about our approach to policy development and consultation.
Finding ways to make sure we hear the perspectives of those we regulate is important. But visits have also provided opportunities to explain our regulatory approach, the reasons for our policy choices, and the areas in which we may have concerns. The development of this two-way engagement – on areas of agreement and disagreement – is particularly important as we embed our regulatory activities. That’s why strengthening our engagement with universities and colleges we regulate will continue to be one of my priorities for the year ahead.