Nicola Dandridge reflected on her time as OfS chief executive in a speech given to the Association of Heads of University Administration's spring conference on 5 April 2022. The following is a transcript of her speech.
There is nothing like being asked to reflect on 15 years in the higher education sector to make one feel very old! But it does indeed now feel like a very long time ago that I joined the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) as its chief executive back in 2006.
It was such a long time ago that I had to check who the relevant English Secretary of State and Minister were, and – in case you too had forgotten – it was Alan Johnson as Secretary of State at the Department for Education and Skills, with Bill Rammell as Higher Education Minister. Shortly afterwards, following machinery-of-government changes, universities went over to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills under John Denham, with David Lammy as Minister. Tuition fees were still £3,000 in England, with little sense that that was going to change after what had been a very lively debate around tripling them a few years before.
My focus then was solely equality and diversity. Although feelings ran high on specific issues, there was broad consensus about the scope and importance of equality, diversity and inclusion – both within the sector and between sector and government. Critical race and gender theory were primarily issues of academic interest and did not impact on the ECU’s work. None of us would have recognised the current vocabulary of ‘culture wars’ and ‘wokery’. I do, however, recall a meeting I had with the then Shadow Higher Education Minister in 2007 where I was trying to persuade him of the importance of equality and diversity in higher education. I’m not sure I succeeded, and we ended up, by mutual agreement – and this may help you remember who he was – talking instead about the importance of Latin and Greek being taught in schools; an issue on which we could both safely and comfortably agree.
I moved to Universities UK (UUK) in early 2010, and remember an initial meeting with the then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson – by which stage higher education had been absorbed into the business department – before the Conservatives took over in the May 2010 election and David Willetts became Minister for Universities and Science. My early years at UUK were dominated by tuition fees, and I will never forget the tumultuous UUK members’ meeting in 2011, which sought to take a position on the tripling of fees. Student protests followed, and I learned how to respond to sit-ins and occupations in Woburn House, at the same time as maintaining an ongoing, frequent, and vibrant dialogue with the National Union of Students (NUS), where they managed to be both principled and pragmatic. That period has left me with a profound respect for the NUS, which has continued to this day.
Another UUK meeting that I recall was the annual members meeting at the University of Surrey, in September 2015, when Jo Johnson, then Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, delivered the annual UUK conference speech. Speaking about teaching and learning he famously referred to ‘patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions.’ He went on:
‘There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it.’
I remember the sharp intake of breath at the time from all of us – including me. Such a thing had never been said before, so baldly and publicly, before that audience. We were quite shocked, and the general response after the event was that the comments were unfair, inappropriate and out of order, and would damage the sector’s reputation nationally and internationally. Criticising any aspect of the sector was regarded as criticising the whole. The sense of reputational solidarity was remarkable.
Looking back, it feels as if that speech signalled a landmark moment, not just in relation to the arrival of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), which is what Jo was introducing when he made the speech, but also the creation of the Office for Students (OfS). It was also quite a landmark for me – not that at that point I had even the remotest sense that I might end up running the new regulator, but more because I was struck by the gap between our response to Jo’s comments – that poor quality did not really exist and if it did it certainly should not be spoken about publicly – and the undoubted reality of the existence of some poor quality provision within an otherwise high performing sector. For a sector that is committed to the truth, its creation and promotion, it felt like an uncomfortable position for us to be in.
The tripling of tuition fees, the subsequent deregulation of student numbers, and, I believe, the reluctance to acknowledge the truth about the existence of some poor quality provision, led to the inevitable creation of the OfS.
The transition from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to the OfS represented a profound shift of approach in terms of regulation and oversight. It was partly to do with the move from funder to regulator – from a body where controls were exercised primarily through the distribution of funding, to one that exercises its control through regulation rather than the residual £1.4 billion of funding that it distributes. But beyond that, I believe that the more significant change was that our focus of attention, and our relationship with the sector, underwent a 180-degree change. The OfS’s primary interest was no longer in the university or college that we funded, but the student who was being taught and paid tuition fees through graduate repayments.
This shift of focus is still, I believe, being worked through. I still receive emails from universities that assume that our role is to support and fund them, rather than protect the interest of students. This is of course a delicate balance, and we are the first to acknowledge that without a thriving, dynamic, and well resourced institution the student experience will be impaired. But that doesn’t mean, as some still assume, that our primary role should be to fund and support the institution on the basis that that will of itself automatically lead to the best outcomes for students.
I left UUK and started as chief executive of the OfS in September 2017. I was then – and still am – branded as poacher-turned-gamekeeper. I find it an irritating description, but to be honest it is probably broadly accurate. It is also when my focus shifted from UK-wide responsibilities to England only, so apologies to colleagues from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in this room given that my focus is now inevitably primarily England.
With hindsight, I’m not sure I fully understood how intense a job establishing the OfS would be. Within three months of starting the job in September 2017, we had to set the organisation up pretty much from scratch; transfer staff from HEFCE and OFFA into the OfS; establish the new board, new systems and structures and a new approach to access and participation; and consult on and publish the regulatory framework that would shape our entire regulatory approach, all in time for our doors opening in January 2018. It is hardly surprising if there were a few rough edges. But the doors did open in January 2018, and we published our new regulatory framework in February 2018 – neatly coinciding as I recall with the arrival of the Beast from the East, meaning that our launch was a dramatically icy and snowy experience. Not that there was any metaphorical significance in that.
Since then, the rough edges have I think been largely smoothed, and – drawing on our experience of the last three years – we just last month launched a revised, robust and effective approach to regulating quality in students’ interests.
Why the OfS was needed
I would like to expand a bit on why the creation of the OfS was in my view essential.
First, tuition fees. When the state paid for most higher education teaching, it was appropriate that accountability should primarily be to the state. However, now graduates are paying for the majority of their tuition fees and living costs, there needs to be more direct accountability to students. A funding council constitutionally could not provide that direct accountability.
Second, merging access and participation and quality regulation through the incorporation of OFFA into the OfS was, in my view, essential. It means that we can now draw on our regulatory powers to support social mobility, and ensure that equality considerations directly impact on our regulation of quality. So through the combination of access and participation plans and our regulatory powers, we can for instance tackle admissions practices that exclude disadvantaged students; we have an interest if outcomes are different for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; and we can intervene if quality dips significantly for black or disabled students, and so on.
Third, we regulate registered providers that do not receive state funding in broadly the same way as we regulate those that do. Previously the Department for Education had to oversee the non-funded sector – dismissively categorised as ‘alternative providers’ – with HEFCE overseeing and funding the rest. That model worked when there were no or few alternative providers, but there are now 419 providers on our register, and the majority (in numbers if not volume) are not traditional universities.
Fourth, the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 sets us up with an explicit remit to regulate for the interests of students. It’s not that HEFCE didn’t do this, but in having responsibilities for research, civic engagement and all the other important things that universities do, as well as teaching, led to the risk of the interests of students being subordinated to those other activities. Of course having research and teaching both housed within HEFCE meant that the links between teaching and research were easier to oversee. But we do now collaborate closely with UK Research and Innovation and Research England on issues that affect both organisations, while our primary strategic objectives relate to students.
Value for money and quality
The Higher Education and Research Act also imposes responsibilities on us in relation to value for money.
It is true that National Student Survey results are relatively positive – even during the pandemic the overall aggregate satisfaction question led to a 75 per cent positive answer, compared with 82 or 83 per cent pre-pandemic. But questions focusing more specifically on value for money are less positive. As noted recently by the National Audit Office, the proportion of undergraduates answering ‘Yes’ to whether they had received value for money fell from 38 per cent in 2020 to 33 per cent in 2021, and the proportion answering ‘No’ rose from 48 per cent to 54 per cent.
One of the first things we did back in 2017 when the OfS was established was to commission a consortium of students’ unions to look at what students understood by value for money. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that the concept meant different things to different students. However, an overwhelming 94 per cent of the students surveyed identified the ‘quality of teaching’ as being very important to them in terms of what they understood by value for money.
Certainly students talk about it with me when I go out and see them: one of my standard questions is to ask them whether they feel that going to university was worth it, and also whether they made the right choice in their subject and choice of university. Although this is hardly a scientific sample, a significant number of responses are negative, and I will never forget the young student who was almost in tears as he explained that he had only two hours of lectures and tutorials a week and didn’t know what to do with himself for the rest of the week. To pretend this is not happening is to let the sector down, and certainly lets students – or at least some of them – down.
Speaking out about quality
Speaking out and being prepared to state challenging truths is something the OfS sees as important, albeit not something that always makes us very popular. But this goes back to the Jo Johnson speech about patchy teaching, and the surely unequivocal truth of his statement. I do not accept the argument that if you make any criticism of any part of the sector, that means you are somehow denigrating the entire sector. Is there any other sector where that principle applies? Why are we so defensive? The truth is that the sector is indeed overall outstanding, excellent, globally leading, strong, responsive – all the adjectives it uses about itself. And this isn’t just self-promotion: I have seen and heard about numerous examples of outstanding, stimulating, inspirational teaching; of lecturers and teachers working all hours to teach, support and encourage their students; and the work done by so many during the pandemic was beyond impressive. But these overall successes do not represent the whole picture.
Alongside the pockets of poor provision, there are also major issues of inequality that are deeply entrenched and which risk making higher education not so much an engine of social mobility as a reinforcer of existing disadvantage. Students who go to university, particularly the most selective institutions, are not in any sense representative of wider society, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who do go do not have the same positive outcomes.
This tension of speaking the truth and regulating robustly, while not undermining the reputation and quality of much of the sector, is undoubtedly a challenge for a regulator. How to encourage parts of the sector to acknowledge the reality of some poor provision when they do not admit it exists? How to even define quality in such a diverse sector, and one where providers are responsible for setting their own standards?
These are the questions that we have sought to address in our reworked quality conditions. We published our new ‘B’ quality conditions last month, with requirements in relation to student outcomes – the B3 condition – to follow later in the year.
The diversity of the sector is undoubtedly a huge strength: that students can choose between such a variety of different providers depending on what they are interested in and what they want to do, is something to be protected and promoted. But the diversity also represents a massive challenge for the regulator. We have to define and regulate to common baselines not just large, established multi-faculty universities and colleges, but in addition, for instance:
- The Dyson Institute, offering degree apprenticeships in engineering
- the Royal School of Needlework, based in Hampton Court Palace and offering degree courses such as hand embroidery
- the music conservatoires that provide highly specialised training in music performance.
Unlike schools, we do not have common prescribed standards and common exams, which create easily defined indicators for regulators to draw on.
I remember some years back a conversation with an American educationalist. We were discussing how the USA approached the regulation of quality assurance given the huge diversity of provision in the states. He basically said that in his view America didn’t do it very well, with fragmented arrangements not only between states but between different types of provider. In his opinion the diversity of provision was so great that it was not possible to have a common approach. Instead, he felt that the best that they could do was probably to require a clear statement ‘on the outside of the tin’ of what was going to be inside, and then for the regulators to ensure that what was promised was delivered. In other words, a consumer contract approach to quality. I remember thinking at the time that although I agreed with the fundamental importance of delivering what was on the tin, it didn’t in itself feel sufficient. Surely we could do better than that.
And indeed that was not the route the OfS decided to go down. Of course, consumer law and consumer protection are essential and provide the frame for our work on quality – and we plan to do more on consumer protection over the next few years. But we have gone further and sought to create common substantive definitions of quality, that encompass the diversity of the sector.
So, new condition B1 requires that every course must be up-to-date, provide educational challenge, be coherent and effectively delivered, and it requires the development of relevant skills.
B2 requires universities and colleges to take all reasonable steps to ensure that students receive the resources and support to ensure a high quality academic experience, with effective engagement with each cohort of students.
We are still analysing consultation responses for B3 – student outcomes – so that is still to come.
B4 relates to assessment and awards, and requires students to be assessed effectively, that each assessment is valid and reliable, that awards are credible and hold their value over time, and there is technical proficiency in the English language as is appropriate for the course.
And B5 requires that standards reflect any applicable sector-recognised standards, and awards made to students reflect those standards.
The TEF consultation has also only just closed so is still under development, but as you will have seen the proposals are substantive and set out how we might define excellence and outstanding provision by reference to two lenses, student experience and student outcomes.
And for all these regulatory conditions and the TEF, we will be scrutinising practices for the impact on disadvantaged students and students with protected characteristics.
Our regulation of quality is not, however, solely focused on the quality of provision – essential though that is. An important element also relates to students making the right choices. Going back to my exchanges with students who feel they made the wrong choices, the issue there is not so much the quality of a course; if it is not what the student wanted and doesn’t lead to where they want to go, it will fail for that student.
The diversity of the sector makes that a particular challenge. When there are so many different courses on offer, how do we ensure that that diversity is a positive for students, rather than a baffling source of confusion that leads to the wrong decision?
This is particularly relevant for students from disadvantaged backgrounds without the support networks and sophisticated careers advice from which their more privileged counterparts benefit. The default, regardless of whether or not it is right from them, is to sign up to their local provider. Or it may involve them choosing a ‘traditional’ course of study, which might not reflect their interests or qualifications, but is the safe option to which they default. Information, advice and guidance, and effective communications to students and their advisers, have to form part of the equation for us as a regulator, which is why we have, for example, built comparison tools and introductory advice for prospective students and their career advisers into the Discover Uni website, which provides official data on courses UK-wide and signposts those students on to UCAS and other relevant sites. Good data is at the heart of supporting informed choices.
So, to conclude. Looking back over the last 15 years, I am left with a huge respect and affection for this outstanding, diverse, complex, powerful, and fundamentally important sector – fundamental not just to the education and personal development of students, young and old, but also our national and local economies, our regions, our culture, and our society. But I also reflect that it is precisely the strength of the sector, and the strength of its collective voice in particular, combined with its power and influence on the education and life-chances of students, that has led to the need for a regulator in England such as the OfS, to challenge that collective monopoly of dominance. There is a need for the OfS to address the imbalance of power between universities and students, in a thoughtful and targeted way.
In doing this, the OfS will continue to contribute to the quality of students’ experience, and add value to the work you do so well, while protecting and enhancing the high reputation in which the sector is held.
My final reflections: when I was invited by the Association of Heads of University Administration to speak at this conference, I was really pleased to say yes. Over the years I have developed a great respect for the work that AHUA does, and the professionalism and expertise that individual AHUA members bring to your roles. Your deep understanding of the issues affecting your institutions means that when we, at the OfS, are dealing with a difficult or controversial issue, we will turn to AHUA to discuss the implications. And even if you don’t agree with us, we have always had the most respectful and courteous discussion, and in every case we have listened to your words, advice and constructive criticism extremely seriously. Your role – as I see it – as a coordinator of solutions is completely essential. So many thanks AHUA, and particular thanks to Catherine Webb, who has coordinated our engagement so professionally and effectively, over many years now.
Then, in being invited to address this conference, the fact that it was in Glasgow had additional resonance for me.
I am acutely conscious that my presentation has had a largely English focus, even though I am speaking in the University of Glasgow with many Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues present. For me personally, there is a rather fitting circularity to this: I am an alumna of the University of Glasgow, having studied Scottish law here before qualifying as a Scottish lawyer. But, professionally as well, one of the ongoing debates that has accompanied the creation of the OfS is how we can make our very different model of regulation in England work respectfully and sensibly alongside the different regulatory systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I am the first to acknowledge that this has not always been straightforward. Although we continue to work across the UK on the National Student Survey and other activities, there are fundamental regulatory differences. I have much valued the extremely regular meetings that take place with our Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts. The conclusion that I have reached from those meetings is that, as with the best principles of equality and diversity, the diversity between us should be seen as a strength and not something to be eradicated or wished away. The differences between the devolved nations should be seen as a positive, and be respected, as part of the diversity of provision in our sector.
I appreciate that that is easy to say and is hard in practice. But it seems to me that it is the only way forward, and one that is so well embodied by the work of AHUA, as it continues to flourish as a UK-wide coordinator of solutions.