The Office for Students (OfS) has published its annual report and accounts for 2020-21. The report covers the OfS’s third year of operation, and our progress in delivering against our regulatory objectives.
In her foreword to the report, the OfS’s chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, highlights the difficulties faced by current and prospective higher education students over the past year:
‘The pandemic affected them in many ways. Many of the 2020-21 intake experienced a sudden end to their Year 13 studies and uncertainty around their exam results and admission to higher education courses, and this year’s cohort of prospective students have had their learning disrupted amid uncertainties around their assessment and future study.
‘Students further along their higher education journey also faced disruption and uncertainty. Public health imperatives meant they had very limited opportunities for face-to-face learning and teaching, spent much time in their accommodation, and faced personal and financial pressures. They showed real resilience in dealing with these challenges.’
The OfS’s focus throughout this extraordinary year has been on understanding and responding to the impact of the pandemic on students and higher education providers:
- We adjusted our regulatory approach to help providers manage the additional demands of the pandemic, while continuing our risk-based monitoring activity and discussion with them on a range of issues – the quality of learning and teaching, financial sustainability, and support for the most vulnerable students.
- Following the rapid shift to online teaching and learning, we made clear our expectations that universities and colleges should maintain the quality of their teaching, and emphasised the need for clear, timely communications with students about how their courses would be delivered in different circumstances.
- We continued our work to improve equality of opportunity in higher education for black, Asian and minority ethnic students and for those in disadvantaged areas. We discussed with universities and colleges how to get their access and participation plans back on track despite the impact of the pandemic, so that they could continue to make progress towards the targets and commitments we have agreed with them for the period to 2025.
- We funded innovative projects involving partnerships between universities and colleges and the NHS, and sponsored the development of a new online mental health resource, Student Space.
Looking ahead, Ms Dandridge said:
‘The coming year will, I hope, allow a return to some degree of normality. We will focus strongly on improving quality and standards, supporting universities and colleges to deliver on the commitments in their access and participation plans, and reducing regulatory burden for those providers that do not pose increased risk. We will work with the government and other partners to deliver the new agendas on skills, lifelong learning and free speech. In all of this our central aim – to protect the interests of students – will remain paramount.’