OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge reflects on a tough year for higher education students and sets out the OfS’s priorities for the year ahead.
This is an edited version of a keynote address given by Nicola Dandridge at the HEPI Annual conference on 24 June 2021.
It’s been a tough year for all of us, and an exceptionally tough year for students. It’s no surprise to see this reflected in the latest HEPI and Advance HE student survey, which – as ever – provides useful insights into students’ experiences over the last year. Two issues highlighted by the survey are particularly relevant to our work at the OfS.
Listening to students
First, it is clearly of concern to see such a significant increase in the number of students saying that their course presents poor value for money – largely driven by the limited availability of in-person tuition. We know that university and college staff worked hard to deliver courses under extremely difficult circumstances, and many will be looking forward to getting back to campus in the autumn, providing it is safe to do so. Nonetheless, the findings are stark.
During the pandemic the OfS took the view that no matter how courses were provided, whether face-to-face or online, all students should receive a high-quality academic experience and if they did not, we would intervene. But not all students received a high-quality experience. We know this through engagement with NUS, our student panel, students on social media – and importantly through the notifications that students submitted to us about specific issues they were having.
Since March 2020, we have received approximately 400 notifications from students, student groups, staff and members of the public. About a third related to the impact of the pandemic. We consistently saw students and others raising issues related to teaching quality and assessment.
We followed up a range of these notifications, engaging directly with universities where necessary. This kind of work doesn’t necessarily make headlines – we don’t comment publicly on ongoing regulatory work – but it is important in helping to ensure that students receive a better experience.
The kind of issues we were particularly focused on included instances of universities delivering significantly reduced course content; self-isolating students not being provided with the right equipment, resources and support to be able to continue studying – and students who could not access online learning.
The HEPI report findings broadly align with what we have found: the importance of face-to-face teaching for many students, with a strong connection being made between perceptions of value and the volume of in-person contact hours.
Responses to the survey also recognise the benefits that online teaching can bring – for example, in the flexibility that digital teaching can bring when working around employment or caring responsibilities.
Sir Michael Barber’s review of digital teaching and learning during the pandemic surfaced a range of case studies demonstrating how – done well – digital teaching and learning can enhance students’ academic experience. For example, a majority of students said they wanted to continue with either entirely online assessments or a combination of online and in-person exams. And 70 per cent of lecturers we polled agreed that online learning provides new and exciting ways to teach.
It is important that debates surrounding the quality of students’ academic experience are not reduced to a binary question of in-person teaching versus online teaching – or persist with a view that one is always superior to the other. In fact, elements of both can be combined in beneficial ways.
The second issue I want to pick up on relates to the quality of information students receive. The HEPI survey highlights an increase in the number of students saying that their experience was worse than expected. Again, this is not surprising in the circumstances. However, it does reflect the importance of students being given clear and timely information about what they can expect before they start their courses, so that what they get is what they expect.
In our view, it is perfectly reasonable to be clear with students that the intention is to plan for face-to-face teaching but to make it clear that elements of teaching might need to move online if COVID-19 restrictions are re-introduced, or to set out how in-person elements may be complemented by online teaching. I would expect universities and colleges to be thinking through, as far as they can, the approach they would take to delivering courses in different scenarios and finding ways to communicate that effectively to both current and prospective students. This will mean students can start the year with realistic expectations about the teaching they will receive.
OfS priorities for the coming year
We are drawing on our experience of regulating in the interests of students over the last couple of years to reframe our approach to regulating quality and standards. Our aim is to ensure we can do more for students and to do so in a proportionate way – in other words, focusing our regulatory efforts on where students are at most risk.
We are taking a multi-faceted approach to regulating quality. On the one hand we want to strengthen our ability to tackle poor quality provision, in terms of students’ academic experience, the resources and support they need to succeed, rigorous assessment practices and reliable standards. On the other, we firmly believe that student outcomes – and by this we mean looking at how many students graduate, what degree class they get and what jobs they go on to – also represent an important element of quality.
Ask students about their motivations for going to university or college and many will emphasise the importance of learning the right skills and obtaining the qualifications they need to secure a good career. It is only right that we take this on board when we regulate, just as we take on board other factors that impact students’ academic experience.
In practice, this means moving forward with our consultations on quality and a new TEF framework, while also taking forward work on reducing regulatory burden for providers where risk is low.
The transition from funding body (HEFCE) to regulator (OfS) has clearly changed the way we need to think about how funding is distributed. We now have a lot less money to give out – although at £1.4 billion it is still a significant amount. We also need to think carefully about how this contributes to our regulatory agenda on issues like supporting high-cost subjects, improving student access and success, funding high-quality specialist provision, and rolling out initiatives to support student mental health.
As the independent regulator it is ultimately up to us to decide how to balance these priorities. It is also fair to say that ministers are, perfectly legitimately, taking a very close look at how public money is used to fund aspects of higher education. This directly reflects the terms of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 that established the OfS and which allows the government to set clear parameters on how funding is distributed.
Throughout all this there is a balance to strike. Part of the responsibility that comes with our independence is weighing up and acting on the views of others – naturally that includes government just as it includes universities, representative groups, students and others. We always enter into consultations and develop policy in that spirit.
Reducing regulatory burden
Tackling issues around burden is always a delicate balance. We know that universities and colleges in England generally deliver high-quality courses and secure rigorous standards. Where providers are doing well it is right that the regulator stays out of the way and allows high-performing institutions to continue to innovate and provide an outstanding academic experience for their students. We want those providers to see less regulation.
Equally, we must not lose sight of the benefits of effective regulation. Tackling poor quality provision, and having a well-regulated and well-respected sector, will benefit all, including students and wider society and providers themselves.
Since the new year we have looked for opportunities to reduce burden on providers as we slowly return to a more normal way of working. For example, we have removed many of the enhanced monitoring requirements we imposed at initial registration; suspended plans to use random sampling of providers, moved to a five-year cycle for access and participation plans and committed to a reduction in registration fees by 10 per cent in real terms by 2022-23.
Most recently we have published a set of five indicators specifically to monitor levels of burden across key areas of our work. We will continue to monitor these indicators in areas such as the fees we charge and practical things like the length and readability of our regulatory guidance.
Later this year we plan to look more closely at the experiences of providers who are regulated by both the OfS and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). We will continue to consider how we can improve the regulatory experience for small providers, where capacity is significantly lower. Additionally, we want to engage with the sector on the burden of our data collections to inform our wider data strategy and improve our communications with universities and colleges so that they are clearer and delivered at more regular intervals.
Improving equality of opportunity
Finally, I would like to return to the theme of how we can rebuild from the recent crisis, combining it with one of the central objectives of the OfS – improving equality of opportunity for students no matter what their background.
There are some exciting opportunities ahead. For example, we have seen a surge in applications from mature learners – with an extra 18,000 mature students applying for undergraduate courses through UCAS compared to last year. This reverses an historic decline in adult learners entering higher education, driven by people wanting to reskill and upgrade their skills in the wake of the pandemic.
If universities can harness this enthusiasm and respond creatively to the needs of mature students, they will help to enable a new generation of learners gain the skills they need for enriching future careers. This effort will be bolstered further by the government’s introduction of the lifetime skills guarantee. There is a role for all of us – the OfS, government, universities, colleges and employers – to collaborate and ensure that higher education delivers on the skills needs of students in a way that also delivers for the wider economy.
But there are challenges too. Earlier this week the Education Select Committee published its much-anticipated report into left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It raised important issues for higher education that I know many here will have been grappling with for some time now.
We know that only 16 per cent of white British students eligible for free school meals go on to education – a progression rate that is much lower than students from other ethnic minority background that are also on free school meals. Ethnicity is not the only important factor here though, and it’s important that discussions on this are not over-simplified.
Place is highly relevant to this agenda. For white students who receive free school meals in London, the entry rate is much higher than in other parts of the country and nearly eight percentage points higher than any other region. Virtually all of the lowest-participation neighbourhoods across England are former industrial towns and cities across the north and midlands, or coastal towns.
Recognising these geographic variations will be key to driving meaningful change here. For example, through our Uni Connect programme we have helped ensure that universities and colleges focus on their local areas and engage not only with students who might not have thought higher education was for them, but also with their parents too. As the select committee report highlighted, poor access for these students is often a generational issue. It therefore needs to be addressed through engagement at the family and community level, as well as with the individual student.
Access and participation plans play a key role too. Universities and colleges have made ambitious commitments to improve access for students in these places, and we will continue to hold them to account for these plans in the coming years. That goes for white students from disadvantaged backgrounds as it goes for all other student groups where there are gaps in access, progression, and attainment.
We know that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on learners from many different disadvantaged backgrounds. Evidence suggests that loss of learning has been more acute for those groups who were already disadvantaged, and universities will be particularly sensitive to students arriving this autumn who may have lost out on significant amounts of teaching.
Over the course of the next academic year we will be looking to ensure that all students are effectively supported, and that they receive what has been promised. This is all the more important given what they have been through over the last year.
A note of optimism
Let’s conclude with some optimism. At the start of the pandemic, there were many gloomy predictions about universities failing. That did not happen. There were also gloomy predictions about student numbers falling because of the pandemic, and they too were ultimately unfounded. The data shows that students are just as keen to go onto higher education as they ever were.
This is a testament to the life-changing and enriching impact that universities – at their best – can have. At the OfS we will look forward to working with universities and colleges over the course of the next year to ensure that the aspirations of those students are met, and that students from all walks of life have a fair opportunity to make their ambitions a reality.