The OfS consultation on quality and standards in a nutshell

The Office for Students has just launched a consultation on one of the most important changes to its practice since its inception. What does it say? We’ve summarised the key takeaways.

In 2017, the Higher Education & Research Act (HERA) dissolved HEFCE, which was a funding body, and replaced it with the OfS which began work the following year as the regulator of higher education in England. In the process it subsumed the remaining activities of HEFCE and OFFA (the Office for Fair Access). 

Since then, some of OfS’s main activities have included establishing a register of approved higher education institutions and signing off on the ‘Access and Participation Plans’ of those institutions that want to be able to claim funding via the Student Loans Company. 

The OfS’s regulation of HE quality and standards has been through signalling and recognisable processes, mostly farmed out under a contract with the QAA. There have been a few interventions from OfS on grade inflation, unconditional offers and TEF, but these haven’t been accompanied by significant new regulatory controls. 

Although OfS does have powers in case of failure (and it has used them by rejecting the registration of a few institutions), its light-touch approach was in keeping with the spirit of HERA, which, during its difficult passage through the Lords was amended to include an explicit commitment to the autonomy of higher education institutions (HEIs) over their admissions and the education they deliver. 

But now the OfS is consulting on a what it calls “tougher minimum standards” with the threat of fines and even deregistration for HEIs that don’t meet them. These powers, it is proposed, will be exercised not merely at an institutional level, but at a subject level too, which, in effect, might allow OfS to exert direct or indirect pressure on an HEI into closing a department whose metrics looked like underperformance. 

The EPC will be responding to this consultation on behalf of members and we’re keen to hear what you think. We will be inviting members views through a survey shortly. (Come back here for the link.) To help you, we’ve provided the following summary of the proposals.

So what are the proposals? There are four areas:

1. “Define ‘quality’ and ‘standards’ more clearly for the purpose of setting the minimum baseline requirements for all providers”

‘Quality’ will be defined in a metric way. This is, it is said, intended to reduce the regulatory burden. The metrics will relate to five areas: access and admissions; course content, structure and delivery; resources and academic support; successful outcomes; secure standards. 

The inclusion of ‘access’ does not mean wider participation targets, but rather admitting students who “have the capability and potential to successfully complete their course”. OfS has been explicit in saying that it “is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes”. In other words, they are rejecting the idea that non-academic circumstances or lower prior attainment might be mitigating circumstances for lower (according to the metrics) student outcomes. The argument put forward is that using the greater challenges of certain students as an “excuse” would “risk baking disadvantage into the regulatory system”.

The goalposts will be different for new HE institutions, because they can’t be judged on track record.

OfS will also set ‘standards’ for higher education – that is any courses beyond A level or equivalent (so that means drawing higher apprenticeships and other programmes into a unified quality framework). These standards will involve “sector-recognised” definitions of achievement – in other words, OfS intends to establish common standards for degree grades.

2. “Set numerical baselines for student outcomes and assess a provider’s absolute performance in relation to these”

OfS would impose “a numerical baseline”: this is intended to be a cliff edge for outcomes metrics, namely continuation to second year, course completion and progression into graduate-level work or further study. (There’s also a reference to employer satisfaction, but as there are no measures for that, it’s only an aside.) If you fall off the cliff, there’s a range of sanctions (see below) including fines or even deregistration of the institution.

What will matter is absolute – not relative – data. There is a reference to considering the context, but this is more to do with what may have changed rather than a profile of the student body. Unequivocally, the consultation paper states, “We would not set lower regulatory requirements for providers that recruit students from underrepresented groups, or with protected characteristics.” The idea is to spell out “more challenging” minimum standards that students can expect. 

Further consultation will be conducted around the exact metrics.

3. “Clarify the indicators and approach used for risk-based monitoring of quality and standards”

As the metric used for the baseline are about things that have happened in the past, the OfS proposes to keep an eye on potential risks in institutions by monitoring other metrics and being clear about which metrics those are. Among those mentioned are admissions data (offers, grades achieved, student demographics), student complaints, National Student Survey results, other regulators’ and PSRBs’ activities, TEF, and the outcomes metrics as above. It should be noted, by the way that NSS is currently under a separate OfS review and we’ve been awaiting the publication of an independent Review of TEF for DfE for nearly two years (which is believed to be critical).

There may be some extra data gathering and reporting for universities, but the intention is to minimise the need for unnecessary interference in the long-run by identifying risks before they become problematic outcomes. 

4. “Clarify our approach to intervention and our approach to gathering further information about concerns about quality and standards”

This proposal sets out what might be called a precautionary approach to intervention. In other words, the OfS makes it clear they would be willing to step in to investigate or gather evidence in the case of a feared risk of an institution failing to meet quality thresholds. 

It also sets out their available “enforcement” actions: impose conditions on an institution in order for it to continue to be registered; issue a fine; suspend some of the privileges of being registered (such as access to student loan funding for fees or OfS public grants); remove an institution’s degree-awarding powers or its right to use ‘University’ in its title; deregistration.

Please note: This precis is intended as guidance only. The aim has been to summarise the proposals objectively while providing some interpretation of their implications. Necessarily this involves some subjective inference and the omission of details. We advise referring to the OfS’s own consultation documents for the full details. Also, if you feel we have interpreted any proposals wrongly, unfairly or left out critical details, please let us now and we can make changes to this summary as needed.

Augar arrives

EPC Chief Executive, Johnny Rich reports on the long-awaited Review of Post-18 Education Funding in England and the possible implications for engineering in HE.

At over 200 pages and featuring 50 recommendations, the Augar Review will take some time to chew, let alone digest and (to follow the nutritional metaphor perhaps a couple of steps too far) turn into a burst of energy or perhaps a pile of waste. However, at the time of writing, the report has now been out for one day, so here’s my quick take on some of the most important points for EPC members.

The fee cut: As has been widely reported and trailed before publication, the Review recommends a cut in the headline tuition fee from £9,250 to £7,500. Obviously, for most engineering departments, that’s way below the per student cost of delivery.

However, the Review also recommends that the total investment in the HE sector remains the same – topped up by teaching grants – albeit frozen for the next few years. It argues that this will be manageable because there is a demographic uplift in the number of 18-year olds coming until 2025. The increased economies of scale should mitigate the freeze. The comfort is a little cold though. There are potential drops in international and EU students following the reputational fallout from Brexit (even if Brexit itself never happens) and, as the Review points out, too many universities are basing their finances on projections of growth of which at least some must, arithmetically, prove to be over-optimistic.

The Review does not envisage that top-up grants are evenly spread. Courses with good employment outcomes – measured, for the most part, in terms of salaries – would receive far bigger top-ups than those that result in less easily measured value. This appears to be good news for Engineering, which is specifically cited as a discipline where there are skills shortages and costs are recognised as high, and bad news for Creative Arts subjects which get a lot of stick for producing a lot of graduates without clear earnings premiums.

But it’s not as simple as that. Unless the top-up for Engineering is high enough to reflect the additional cost of teaching, we may have a situation where cheaper courses can still yield a margin on the basis of lower fees, but expensive ones not only cannot contribute to institutional overheads, but they can’t even pay for themselves. The commercial pressure will be to axe the expensive courses and do exactly the opposite of what the Review hopes to achieve.

Levels 4 and 5: Large parts of the Review report are devoted to a raft of measures to better support Further Education, including capital investment, access to loan-style tuition funding for level 4 and 5 qualifications on a par with the basic annual ticket price for degrees (£7,500), and a lifelong learning account (equivalent to the cost of four years of university study) allowing students to build up qualifications throughout their lives in modular chunks.

The Review does more to break down distinctions between HE and FE institutions rather than build them up, so, for universities that already offer qualifications at different levels, or those that decide to, there are opportunities here to build a diverse and financially sustainable offering.

Interim qualifications: Part of the drift away from seeing a level 6 (degree-level) qualification as the gold standard of post-18 education is the recommendation that university degrees should all include an interim qualification after the first or second year. The idea is to combat drop-outs – or at least to combat the stigma attached to dropping out without anything to show for it but debt.

It’s hard to think of significant objections to this recommendation, so universities need to start thinking about how it will work. For Engineering courses, it’s raises a number of particularly thorny issues. Would an interim qualification be accredited? How would this work in an integrated masters course?

Disadvantaged students: As well as topping up fees for expensive courses, the Review proposes a significant shift of top-up funds towards institutions that admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The reason for this is presented not merely as social engineering, but in recognition of the fact that, statistically speaking, for a host of reasons, it costs more to teach these students than their more affluent peers.

How you define ‘disadvantage’ is discussed and, while not completely shredding the POLAR metrics, the Review clearly thinks other alternatives may be better. There is no recognition of the fact that underrepresentation in HE takes different forms in different disciplines.

Engineering has particular challenges attracting women, BAME students and those from lower socio-economic groups. It has less of a problem attracting state-educated males than most subjects. Whatever intersectional measures of disadvantage are used may have unintended repercussions for Engineering. As with the threat of reduced fees, this well-intentioned recommendation may create reasons to axe Engineering courses and departments to massage the numbers of a university as a whole.

Foundation courses: In a move to support students from under-represented groups, some Engineering departments have introduced Foundation years as preparation for a full degree. The Review recommends that these be dropped altogether in favour of Access to HE diplomas, which currently are funded at a lower level. In other words, they want to stop universities from using Foundation years to ‘game’ an extra year of higher funding.

In a report where the arguments are usually clear and well evidenced (even if they don’t always reach the right solution), this recommendation seems unfounded and – I put my hands up – I just don’t understand how it achieves anything given that I would have thought Access to HE courses would, under the Review other proposals now attract the same funding as Foundation years. Meanwhile, it shuts down an access route to Engineering that some universities have found is a useful way of ensuring degree success for some students – such as those with BTECs or lower attainment in, say, maths or physics.

Entry requirements: Before the publication of the Review, there was lot of kite-flying (not least from Education Secretary Damian Hinds) about the possibility of a de facto cap on student numbers by saying that only those with equivalent to three Ds or above at A level would qualify for financial support.

There are very few students studying Engineering with entry grades that low. Those that are have usually gained their place on the basis of some particular exception. This exemplifies the problem with this policy: the few students it would have blocked are just the ones where investment in their education might have yielded the biggest difference to their prospects.

That’s presumably why the Review has not come out fully in favour of the idea. Yesterday, the Universities Minister Chris Skidmore tweeted his delight that it had “never featured” in the report. Given the section titled “A minimum entry threshold” on p99, the whole of the next page and a half devoted to discussing how such a threshold might be contextualised and then recommendation (3.7) on the next page, I’d say “never featured” is a bit of an overstatement.

Still, for now, that idea has gone away. Instead, universities are fairly firmly warned to put their recruitment business in order or else. Low offers must only be used judiciously and if ‘conditional unconditional’ offers aren’t curbed, then the Review has spelt out that the Government should step in. (Whether, under the Higher Education & Research Act, it has the power to do so without legislation is doubtful though.)


That’s just a few takeaways. No doubt I will kick myself for forgetting to mention dozens of others, but I will update EPC members further as the debate progresses.

One thing to add though is a comment on the status of these recommendations. The Augar Review is a high-profile independent report to the DfE as part of a government review. It is not a White Paper (ie. a plan for legislation). It is not even a Green Paper (a consultation document). It is just a series of considered ideas based on trying to come up with good solution rather than politically motivated ones.

There is every possibility the Review could be ignored, not least because Theresa May – principal sponsor of the exercise – is about to become a rather embarrassing footnote in political history. She put Damian Hinds in post and, although he’s one of the few Tory MPs who seems not to have designs on becoming prime minister, there’s no guarantee he will hang around in his job long enough to put the recommendations into action.

Putting them into action is easier said than done. Some of the recommendations would require legislation and whenever bills relating to student finance come to the Houses of Parliament their path tends to be rockier than a quarry dump-pile. Moreover, bear in mind party politics is so chaotic at the moment that the only vote anyone has dared put before the Commons for the past few weeks was on the anodyne issue of wild animals in circuses (although that is an apt metaphor).

All of this is why yesterday’s launch of the Review was introduced by Mrs May herself. She wanted to send a clear message to her successor that they should see this through. It’s her last ditch attempt at scribbling something, anything, on her CV under the heading of ‘achievements in role’.

The leadership contenders may or may not adopt these ideas. The chances of them engaging with them in detail are slim, but there are two main reasons they will want to do something, even if it’s not this.

Firstly, doing nothing is almost not an option because the Office for National Statistics ruled in December last year that the current accounting mechanism for student loans must change to reflect more accurately what they actually cost the public purse. This means we are entering the political bartering of a Comprehensive Spending Review with higher education costing tens of billions more than planned in terms of the public deficit. It’s all an accounting con, but it matters in terms of perceptions and economic confidence.

Secondly, Labour’s pitch at the 2017 election to axe fees altogether was seen as a major cause of the supposed ‘youthquake’ of support that wiped out May’s majority. Politically, it would be hard for any new Conservative leader to go into the next election – which could happen by accident at almost any time – without any response whatsoever to Labour’s offer.

That said, despite a lot of good reasoning and a host of suggestions at least some of which are very sensible, it’s hard to see how anything in the Augar Review is the vote-winning miracle that polls suggest the Conservatives need right now. After all, if £9,250 a year was off-putting, £7,500 with a more regressive repayment mechanism isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a bargain.