The Office for Students (OfS) has published its annual review for 2023, which explores the central issues in English higher education in 2023.
As well as a commentary from the OfS chief executive Susan Lapworth, the review sets out key milestones for the OfS in 2023 and a statistical overview of the sector.
In her commentary, Susan Lapworth sets out continuing challenges and opportunities for the sector in three areas: quality and standards; equality of opportunity; and financial sustainability.
On quality and standards, Susan Lapworth says:
‘At the OfS, we are proud to regulate one of the most respected higher education sectors in the world, where the vast majority of courses continue to be of high quality. This is evidenced through our monitoring of student outcomes data and the results from the National Student Survey (NSS).
‘This year, we have completed our first assessments of the quality of courses at certain higher education providers. The published reports set out the findings of the impartial and rigorous assessments by teams of academic experts. These include details of any concerns identified during the assessments.
‘We are considering whether any regulatory action is appropriate for any of these cases. Meanwhile, we have published the reports to enable all universities and colleges to consider any implications of the findings for the quality of their courses, including those where delivery is subcontracted to other providers, and to make any necessary improvements.'
The commentary details the changes the OfS has made to the way it regulates equality of opportunity, including through the introduction of a new Equality of Opportunity Risk Register. Universities are asked to consider 12 sector-wide risks that may affect a student’s opportunity to access and succeed in higher education as they draw up their access and participation plans. On this issue, Susan Lapworth says:
‘Our work on promoting equality of opportunity is closely linked with our work on quality and standards. We want all students, from all backgrounds, with the ability and desire to undertake higher education, to be supported to access high quality courses and achieve qualifications that are valued by students, employers, and society.
‘Not all students have equal opportunities to progress to an outcome that they consider positively reflects their higher education experience.
‘Our updated regulatory guidance on access and participation plans includes the expectation that providers will look at multiple areas to improve graduate outcomes for disadvantaged groups, some of which are: development of the curriculum; pedagogy; learning resources; student support; employability; and opportunities such as work experience, placements and internships.’
On financial sustainability, the review restates risks identified by the OfS in its most recent update. These included inflationary costs while income from tuition fees for UK undergraduates remains fixed, an overreliance on fees from international students, and continuing challenges in meeting investment needs for facilities and environmental policies. In her commentary Susan Lapworth says:
‘These risks remain present in the operating environment and the pressure on institutions continues. While many universities and colleges are actively working to mitigate future financial risks, others are not fully assessing and managing these, and are having to respond reactively when they start to materialise. We also see an optimism bias in many financial returns: for example, while the projected growth in student numbers at individual providers may seem reasonable, across the higher education sector as a whole in England it may be unrealistic.
‘The risks facing the sector are of course subject to change. We will continue to monitor risks closely and are tailoring our approach to assessing the financial resilience of individual providers to reflect the changes in the overall risk context for the higher education sector. To support this risk-based approach, we have begun new engagement activity, including convening roundtable sessions with finance leaders from across the sector to discuss financial sustainability and the particular risks they are facing. This includes hearing from universities that are not experiencing financial difficulties, and using our engagement activity to set expectations about how universities should be assessing their own financial risks given the pressures they face.’