Acting in the student interest: Susan Lapworth speaks about how the OfS is expanding and improving the work it does with students.

Read the full transcript of a speech by Susan Lapworth, Chief Executive of the OfS, who spoke at the annual Association of Colleges Higher Education conference on Thursday 21 March.


Thank you Arti the introduction.  And thank you to the Association of Colleges for inviting me to speak with you today.

I’m delighted to be talking about the OfS’s priorities for the year ahead and beyond. And to endorse the important role colleges play in our higher education system.

As people at the frontline of delivering higher education in colleges, you know how important colleges are.

  • They provide academic, technical, and professional education and training for around 1.6 million people in England each year.
  • They employ over 100,000 full-time equivalent staff in England, often making them a local area’s largest employer.
  • They offer a broad range of qualifications and courses with extensive choices for students: from engineering and hospitality, to IT and construction. Plugging skills gaps across the UK in key growth areas such as in AI.
  • And colleges help people of all ages and backgrounds to make the most of their talents and ambitions. So being rooted in local communities means you are essential in driving social mobility and providing the skills to boost local and regional economies.
  • This remarkable contribution to educational and the economic life of your communities is rooted in colleges’ strong focus on the needs of students. Not just in educational terms, but also their need for high quality support and personalised guidance to help them make the most of their college education.

In our recent work investigating quality in other parts of the higher education system, we have seen and acknowledged that some of those we regulate work with students who, for whatever reason, have had a poor prior experience of education. Although, of course, not every college higher education student is in that position, the college sector should collectively be very proud that so many who are get the guidance and support they need in further education settings.

But, sadly, we know that in too many parts of the system, students’ interests are not always being well-served.

The OfS was set up as “the office for students” precisely because of this.

And, over the past year, we too have come to recognise that our understanding and communication of the student interest has not always been strong enough or consistent enough for our regulation to be visible to students and for them to feel the confidence in our regulation they should.

That’s why we’re committing to put student interest at the heart of our next strategy.

Understanding and communicating better what students want, need and can expect from higher education is essential.

It will allow us to improve our regulation of quality, an area students raise frequently with us.

They have serious questions about:

  • the amount of teaching they receive,
  • the frequency and usefulness of feedback provided to them, and
  • the level of support, both academic and pastoral, they can access.

We’re clear that students deserve to receive what they were promised by their provider when they chose their course.  We want to see that spelt out with greater clarity, and students confident they can hold providers to account for it.

Of course, we recognise that there is more to quality in higher education than meeting students’ expectations as services users. Students need and deserve credible qualifications, which hold their value over time.

That’s why we’ve worked so hard over recent years to build strong, effective systems for assessing quality on the ground.

I know you’ll have seen the first quality assessment reports that we’ve published recently – focusing on business and management courses, and computing courses. Those are the cases driven by teams of academic experts who’ve visited institutions.

I hope publishing the judgements of those academic experts will be helpful to you as you think about how and where you might look to improve your courses for your students.

As we develop and embed that assessment process, it’s going to start to feel more familiar and comfortable to us all. But I want to acknowledge that delivering these assessments has been a new process for us. And there are areas we want to develop and do differently next time.

We’re reflecting on this and adapting our approach.  And we’re currently gathering feedback from universities and colleges involved in the initial assessments, and from wider groups.

Some of the initial changes we’re planning include:

  • Updating some of the language we use. So we might talk more about assessments or compliance assessments, rather than investigations.
  • We think there’s scope for additional training for assessment teams, for example, focusing on welfare to ensure staff are appropriately supported during visits and the wider process.
  • And we know the sector would like us to publish more information about how institutions are selected for assessment and how the process unfolds from there.

I want this new process to work for us, and for you, but, most importantly, for the students we are all here to support.

Defining more clearly and coherently the student interest will also support another area where our regulation is developing: freedom of speech and academic freedom.

As that work has progressed, we have sometimes been told, including by some students, that students do not consider this a priority. But we know that the National Student Survey found that one in seven students in England felt unable to freely express their views. 

Of course, with legislation in place, we would not be able to resile from regulating this area in any event – but I think there is something deeper here, that requires the OfS as the regulator, and the whole sector, to really engage with student attitudes on this.

The essential importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom to making higher education a worthwhile investment for those students seems clear: the value of higher education lies in bringing students into a complex world of evidence and argument, where views that challenge conventional wisdom are debated precisely because they make that challenge. They may be wrong or right, or somewhere in between, but the collective act of debate and dissection of ideas, old and new, is what allows us to be confident that what and how students are learning represents the best knowledge we currently have.

If students don’t recognise this, we need to understand why. Is it an artefact of who speaks loudest in our current systems? Or that cost-of-living worries and the associated challenges have reduced the scope for considering these broader issues? Or that students today have a fundamentally different conception of what freedom of speech and academic freedom ought to entail?

It matters that we understand students’ perspectives on these issues – especially where our obligations mean we must continue to do this work. As we are open with students about where we are working on matters they immediately recognise as significant, we need to be even more so when we take action on issues they do not.

I appreciate that you and your colleagues in the college sector will have concerns about unintended consequences of the new free speech obligations and what these mean for colleges and their students’ unions.

In particular, I know that many of AoC’s members have made points about the age of student union representatives, given that they may be younger than those performing that role in universities. We’ve also heard some concern about a potential two-tier system: with colleges that deliver high education subject to more regulation than those that don’t.

We’ll look at consultation responses over the next few weeks and think carefully about the points you’ve all made.  We aim to publish final decisions about the shape of the new free speech complaints scheme in good time for its launch on 1 August.

None of this is easy or straightforward. And sometimes we’re working with hard constraints in legislation that don’t leave much room for flexibility. But we’re committed to the fundamental importance of this issue to the credibility and future of higher education.

Recommitting ourselves to understanding the student interest will also open up new challenges for the OfS, perhaps in areas that we’ve not previously talked about.

For example, although access to accommodation appears in our Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, we’ve been cautious about stepping into that arena in regulatory terms. But it is clear that students are increasingly concerned about the cost, quality and uneven availability of accommodation for their studies.  It’s the most frequently mentioned issue in discussions with students in my visits to institutions.

Likewise, while we’ve taken steps to encourage stronger working links between those we regulate and the organisations that provide health services to students, particularly to support their mental health, we’re not the regulator of those services, and much of the most critical care can’t be provided by universities and colleges directly.

In these sort of cases, we must be careful not to promise the benefits of regulation that we cannot be confident we can deliver.

But we are open to the view that, as a regulator framed and formed in relation to the interests of students, it may fall to us to take action, or to seek to better co-ordinate the activity of others, or to just talk about them because they matter to students.

And our authority for those conversations must be driven from a close attention to students’ views, experiences and attitudes. We’re clear that “students” include all those currently in the system, as well as those who have progressed from their studies, and those who have yet to decide where, or even if, they will study.

To ensure we’re engaging with and understanding all those perspectives, as well as framing our new strategy around the student interest, we’re already expanding and improving the work we do with students.

We’ve built this around 'the three ins' into our work: Information, input, and insight.

  • Student information: that’s what we think students need to know (or at least have the chance to know) about higher education before, during and after their involvement in it.
  • Student input: that means opportunities for students and their representatives to share what students think we need to know, and hear our responses.
  • Student insight: this is what we think we need to know about what students experience before, during and after higher education in order to properly deliver our regulatory work.

We’ve commissioned new polling and a range of focus groups to expand our insight into students’ experiences and preferences. We’re extending the terms of current members of our student panel to ensure they can be embedded in and shape a refreshed approach to student input. And we’re conducting a thorough review of our student-facing communications to ensure they are relevant, meaningful and engaging.

As we evaluate our new TEF and our new approach to access and participation plans, we’re reinforcing the importance students’ voices, and considering how we can support students and their representatives to inform these aspects of our regulation more consistently.

And, as I’ve said, our new strategy will centre the student interest – and our understanding of that interest will be founded on our work on the Three Ins.

But, naturally, we also want those we regulate to inform our strategic thinking. The route to our new strategy is perhaps as important as what it ends up saying.

And so I’m pleased that we’re hosting strategy development events in the next few months. There’ll be a number of workshops in May and June in various locations around the country which we’ll be announcing in the next few weeks. And I would encourage you to join us if you can.

This ongoing conversation, through our programme of visits to institutions, and the engagements we have with the sector and students more broadly, will ensure that the OfS is driven by the interests of students and understands what that looks and feels like to those delivering on the front line of higher education.

I look forward to working with you as we work together to ensure students have access to a high quality education and get the best possible outcomes in return for their investment. 

Thank you.



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Published 21 March 2024

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