This week, the Office for Students has published its first annual review. It is a good opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved so far, and what we have learned about regulating our great higher education sector.
As I set out in my commentary to the review, higher education in England is outstanding by many measures. Student satisfaction scores are high, and for most students teaching is inspirational and their time at university will have a transformative impact on their lives. The diversity of the sector means that it can respond to different student needs and aspirations. There is compelling evidence that graduates are far more likely to get a good job – an issue that we know is important to students now that they contribute to the costs of their undergraduate education through loan repayments.
The first piece of research that we commissioned in 2018 demonstrated the range of views that students have as to what amounts to value for money. Notwithstanding that diversity of views, overwhelmingly students reported valuing the quality of teaching and the learning environment above everything else. This chimes with the discussions I have had with students over the past 18 months, during which the quality of their courses and the academic support on offer was raised again and again – but not always in complimentary terms. Addressing poor quality provision, where it exists, has been one of our top priorities and will continue to be into the future.
All universities and colleges that register with us must meet 24 conditions that ensure a minimum level of performance is delivered for all students, regardless of their background. Where we have concerns, we have asked questions, set up monitoring arrangements and, in more serious cases, imposed specific conditions.
In particular, we are deeply concerned that some students – disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds – are recruited inappropriately on to poor quality courses and left to flounder without the support they need to succeed. Many end up dropping out altogether – a terrible waste of talent. In some cases, we have refused to register providers. Elsewhere, we have intervened to address issues such as grade inflation and admissions processes that do not work in the interests of students.
We have also set ourselves ambitious targets in relation to access and participation. This is not just a question of students from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into higher education, but also which university they go to, what happens when they get there, and what they do once they leave. There are stark differences in outcomes depending on social class and equality characteristics across the entire sector – one of the reasons so many universities on our register had some form of monitoring or intervention when we registered them.
In addressing these issues, we have to focus on areas where we want to see improvement. That is the nature of being a risk-based regulator. It has been suggested to me that our narrative is sometimes too negative and that is damaging. I don’t accept that. Being transparent about the existence of poor quality provision is essential if we are to tackle it effectively. Demonstrating this to students and the public will also ensure we retain and restore trust in our universities.
Over the course of the next year, we will champion areas where universities and colleges are doing great things. Where there are examples of good practice from which others can learn, we will promote them. We want to get the balance right between promoting good practice where we can, while never shying away from identifying and addressing poor practice and speaking openly about what we are doing.
The OfS is committed to learning as one of its core values. We will learn from the past year and build on the strong foundations we have created. Working with the sector, we will ensure that our universities and colleges continue to inspire and educate, so that every student, whatever their backgrounds, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their life and career.