Annual review 2023

The Office for Students annual review 2023


Lord Wharton of Yarm, OfS chair
Lord Wharton of Yarm, OfS chair

Over the past year, the Office for Students (OfS) has continued to evolve to deliver our role of regulating the higher education sector in England for the benefit of students and the public.

This role affects both the outcomes of a student’s time at university or college – their qualifications and career opportunities – and the experience they have while taking part in higher education. Many universities and colleges already provide a high quality education for their students, and many students pass their time at university with positive experiences to look back on. However, there are times when these things may not be true, and then we have a duty to students to intervene.

I am pleased to say that the 2023 Teaching Excellence Framework rates student experience as well as student outcomes, to help prospective students with the important choice of what and where to study. Meanwhile, this year we have begun to publish reports on our quality assessments of specific institutions, to encourage all universities and colleges to ensure that their courses meet our requirements for high quality. Encouragingly, some of these reports found no areas of concern, and where concerns were identified we are considering whether regulatory action is appropriate. In each case, we have been pleased to see institutions across the country engaging with the reports and the implications for their own courses and students.

It is clearly to students’ benefit that their university or college continues to be financially secure, and we continue to monitor the sustainability of the higher education sector. We have identified and advised on a number of key risks and challenges faced by universities in maintaining a sound financial footing, such as cost pressures and an overreliance on income from overseas students.

Our work is done for the benefit of students from all backgrounds. Our Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, introduced this year and informing the latest round of access and participation plans that universities and colleges have sent to us, identifies and will help eliminate risks to the practical expression of this principle. We have also funded projects to address poor mental health among students, and have announced a new panel to review how universities and colleges support disabled students. Sexual misconduct on campus continues to be a concern to students and to the OfS, and we have launched a groundbreaking pilot survey on its prevalence, to inform our future work and that of others in this area.

Current national and international events make freedom of speech on campus an increasingly salient issue, and there have been times when students and staff have felt unable to express themselves as freely as they should. Higher education providers should take steps to uphold free speech within the law for everyone – although this does not, and cannot, include discrimination against, or harassment of, Jewish students, or any other conduct prohibited by law. Arif Ahmed, the OfS’s new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, has set out our stall in a non-partisan and thoughtful way and has met with students and sector representatives to discuss approaches to free speech. He will continue to set direction for the OfS’s work in this area as we begin to implement new legislation over the coming months.

The OfS senior team has also recently been joined by a new Director of Regulation, Philippa Pickford, and I welcome her alongside Arif. They join the OfS as we enter 2024 with a renewed commitment to serving students and society, and helping to protect the standing and reputation of English higher education.

[1] OfS, ‘Quality assessments’, September 2023.

[2] OfS, ‘TEF 2023 ratings dashboard’, last updated December 2023.

[3] OfS, ‘Equality of Opportunity Risk Register’, March 2023. Access and participation plans set out how higher education providers will improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education.

[4] OfS, ‘Financial sustainability of higher education providers in England 2023 update’ (OfS 2023.20), 2023.

[5] OfS, ‘Students polled about prevalence of sexual misconduct in higher education in a UK first’, published September 2023.

[6] See OfS, ‘Consultation on the OfS’s new free speech complaints scheme’ and ‘Consultation on the OfS’s approach to regulating students’ unions on free speech matters’.

[7] OfS, Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom Director: OfS to protect lawful speech rights independently of the views expressed, 9 October 2023.

[8] See OfS, ‘Regulatory activity for individual providers’ and OfS, ‘Operational measures’.

[9] OfS, ‘Office for Students strategy 2022 to 2025’ (OfS 2022.15), 2022; OfS, ‘Key performance measures’.



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