It is important for all regulators to engage effectively with those they regulate. As we implement our 2022-25 strategy – regulating to ensure high quality courses and extend equality of opportunity – we are becoming more active and expanding our investigatory work. As they face greater scrutiny it is more important than ever that universities, colleges and other higher education providers understand our expectations and their responsibilities. Getting the communication right between the OfS and the universities and colleges we regulate reduces misunderstanding.
I recognise that this more active regulatory focus can feel challenging to institutions. But this shift is important if we are to ensure a good experience and outcomes for students across the sector. We know that universities and colleges share these objectives. Universities and colleges also spend billions of pounds of public money each year – effective regulation protects the interests of taxpayers and students. It also serves to protect the reputation of English higher education overseas and to reassure domestic stakeholders such as the sector’s lenders and credit rating agencies.
That’s why we have strengthened our conditions of registration for quality and student outcomes, updated the Teaching Excellence Framework and our approach to equality of opportunity, introduced new National Student Survey questions and will shortly be consulting on our approach to harassment and sexual misconduct. We have also signalled that we will be undertaking assessments of quality and standards – currently done by the Quality Assurance Agency – ourselves from 1 April 2023.
All these changes have important implications for our relationship with institutions. Recent months have seen a significant number of consultations which have necessarily been detailed to ensure our proposals are fully explained. Some consultation periods have been shorter than you would have preferred because we thought it important to introduce strengthened regulatory protection for students as quickly as possible. I know that this has felt unduly burdensome to some institutions, and where possible we will aim to provide more time for responses in the future.
We engage with the sector currently in different ways. I meet regularly with mission groups and other sector representative organisations, as do my senior colleagues. For the first time this year we are meeting groups of finance directors to explore the financial challenges facing different types of institutions. We organise a range of online and hybrid events linked to particular policy areas and consultations. We send regular email updates and newsletters. And – typically, twice monthly – we send a curated mailing to vice-chancellors, principals and other accountable officers, ensuring that we coordinate our communications. This approach was introduced directly in response to feedback from accountable officers that there was too little coordination of our mailings, and has been well received.
Feedback from providers
But we know there is more we can do, not least as we increase our investigatory work and strengthen our regulatory requirements. We told the Public Accounts Committee in July last year that we planned to gather structured feedback to enable us to hear institutions’ perspectives. So, last summer, we commissioned Shift Learning to conduct 32 in-depth interviews with institutions on their engagement with the OfS. In their report, which we are publishing today, they identified aspects of engagement that drew positive responses, including our accountable officer mailings, issue-focused events, the OfS website, and individual interactions with staff.
The report also identified areas where we could improve our engagement, where institutions were critical of our approach. Those interviewed wanted consultations to be staggered more and long documents to include executive summaries. Similar points about the number and response times for consultations have been made by some mission groups too. Respondents wanted more information about the role of the OfS, reduced administrative burden, and a more collaborative and consultative relationship. Institutions of different types wanted more tailored communications, reflecting their particular size and circumstances. They also wanted a clearer sense of how OfS teams are organised and our relationship with government.
There are clearly areas identified in the interviews where improvements can be made, as well as issues that may reflect the necessary difference in approach between the OfS and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, our main predecessor – the OfS has statutory powers and exercising those appropriately needs different approaches to those adopted by a buffer body with only funding powers. Nevertheless, the report is a valuable barometer of sector perceptions and we are keen to respond positively and practically.
New ways to engage
We will consider all the recommendations. But one area where institutions told us they were particularly keen to see us doing more is in providing more opportunities to engage directly with the OfS team. We currently run regular Insight events and events linked to consultations. We propose to augment these with:
- Regular online sessions for accountable officers, with the opportunity to ask questions of the chief executive and other directors. For some of these we will work with mission groups and sector organisations to create opportunities for roundtables for senior staff to meet with vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors and others, to respond to common questions and to resolve misunderstandings. We will look at the best formats to maximise participation.
- A series of scheduled visits to institutions for senior staff with opportunities for interested OfS board members to join visits where appropriate. We believe these visits – spread across the range of different institutions and across England – can help improve mutual understanding.
Our recent consultations have often been accompanied by necessarily long documents. Many of you recognise the need for us to consult in a legally compliant way on complex issues. But some of you have said you have felt constrained by time and you have suggested ways we could make responding easier for you. So we will refresh our approach to consultations: we will include concise executive summaries and consider carefully the appropriate period for consultation each time, recognising that we may ask you to respond more quickly to simpler consultations.
Institutions were broadly positive about the range of information on our website, but we know there is always room for improvement. So we will:
- Make further improvements to the website drawing on new user research, including a digital version of the regulatory framework, more information about the role of the OfS including an organogram showing the teams working in different areas, and easy access to guidance and case studies.
- Ensure better promotion of existing contact routes for institutions including reminding providers of how to reach their existing contacts through our dedicated regulation line.
We have always recognised the importance of communicating with the wider public and policymakers through the media. We also know that the sector media is an important source of information for many institutions, so we will continue to engage with them to highlight significant regulatory and policy news and to seek to ensure accurate coverage of our work. That includes talking openly about regulatory decisions we make where appropriate.
I hope that these steps will help institutions better understand our regulatory role and the expectations we have of them, while at the same time demonstrating our desire to develop our understanding of the pressures and challenges in the sector. The OfS has limited resources and we are prioritising these steps because the sector has told us they are important and will help to realise our shared commitment to an excellent education for students.