Are the OfS proposals on quality and standards good for the sector?

In this blog, Chief Executive Johnny Rich provides a critical commentary on the Office for Students (OfS) proposals on quality and standards – potentially one of the most important changes to its practice since its inception. 


These are his personal opinions to help stimulate the community into synthesising for themselves the possible implications and they do not necessarily reflect the views of the EPC nor its members.


We’ve posted a summary of the OfS consultation paper here and the OfS’s own documents can be found here. 

We are conducting a survey, so that the EPC can give a representative response. Please contribute your thoughts.

(Rhys A. via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0)

The Department for Education has got a hold of the idea that ‘low quality’ courses are rife in UK higher education. It is determined that they must rooted out. It’s hard to argue with a policy of tackling shortcomings – that makes it good politics, without necessarily being good policy. 

The problem is that there’s not actually sound evidence to support this idea of low quality. What do we even mean by it? 

Until recently the terminology was ‘low value’, but a pandemic-related newfound appreciation for low-paid nurses made it seem too reductive to focus too much on graduate salaries and that highlighted how problematic it is to define value. So the DfE now prefers to talk about ‘quality’ but the definition is no clearer. 

Never mind, that’s not the Government’s problem. The English regulator can worry about that. That’s why we now have a potentially far-reaching consultation from the Office for Students (OfS) on quality and standards and what, in future, the OfS proposes to do to hunt down low quality and quash it with “tough new measures”. 

As the consultation was launched, Universities UK boldly stepped up to defend the honour of courses everywhere by announcing a new charter on quality. Well, not actually a new charter, but a working group to consider one. I fear, however, that the possibility of a charter is like trying to slay this dragon with a plastic butter knife.

“This is full-on chemotherapy to treat a few bunions.”

So what’s so bad about the proposals? Surely, if there is any low quality, we should all want to cut it out? And if there’s not, there’s nothing to fear? Sadly, the cure is not harmless. This is full-on chemotherapy to treat a few bunions. 

It would be complacent to imagine there are not many courses and whole institutions that can be improved and there are many in HE who say we won’t win friends by being close-minded to criticism. I agree. Indeed, the EPC regularly engages in activities to support enhancement of teaching, learning and student experience. 

But we don’t do anyone any favours by not being rigorous about critics’ motives and the evidential basis for change. Every international comparison suggests we have one of the best HE systems in the world and calling for “tougher measures” as if there’s a regulation deficit is more to do with doing something than doing something necessary or even justified. 

This isn’t about fixing an actual problem. It’s about pandering to backward-looking diehards that see unis as too open, full of ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses with too many students. 

No one could call engineering a Mickey Mouse course, though, so perhaps we needn’t worry? Well, even if we didn’t care about colleagues and students in other disciplines, rather than improve HE, the proposals are likely to narrow fair access, stunt social mobility and protect elitism while cementing the goal of high education as basically a job conveyor belt. That’s not good for anyone.

Let’s just start by mentioning the timing. As EPC members know all too well, in recent months it’s been really tough to deliver high-quality courses and so choosing this moment to launch a major consultation on delivering high-quality courses, is, to say the least, insensitive. In all likelihood, it may distract from the very delivery that they want to improve and any current data that may be used to inform the consultation is going to be from the most outlying wildernesses of every bell curve. 

OfS proposes gifting itself greater powers to assess Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) more closely, including at subject level, and to apply sanctions for performance metrics (on continuation, completion and progression) that it deems unsatisfactory. These sanctions could include fines and even deregistration. A full summary of the OfS proposals is here.

“There are no reliable metrics of success, only proxy measures – and when you let proxies do your decision-making, you get people gaming the data and you get unintended consequences.”

There are many obvious concerns about this. For a start, metrics are a very blunt instrument. There are no reliable metrics of success, only proxy measures – and when you let proxies do your decision-making, you get people gaming the data and you get unintended consequences. (Ironically, this is exactly the argument that the Government has recently been deploying about the National Student Survey, which it has suddenly decided is the cause of supposed dumbing down. Again, there’s no actual evidence of this. Nevertheless, the OfS is currently reviewing that too.)

OfS wants to take a more metric-based approach in order to reduce bureaucratic load, which is fair enough, but if you want data to tell you anything useful, you really need to understand the context. No two HEIs are alike and the same numbers can tell very different stories. 

The consultation does explicitly acknowledge that the context needs to be considered, but the context will explicitly exclude anything to do with the socioeconomic disadvantage or other protected characteristics of the students (disability, ethnicity, etc). OfS intends to impose non-negotiable “numerical baselines” – ie. cut-offs for universities with outlying data – whatever the reason.

Some unis and courses will end up being ‘low quality’ for a host of reasons to do with their intake rather than anything that they might actually be doing wrong. Quite the opposite, trying too hard to do the right thing will open them up to sanctions. 

For example, dropout rates are higher among students with extra financial or social challenges, and bias in recruitment practice disadvantages certain graduates. So if students are from lower socioeconomic or minority ethnic backgrounds, or they are disabled or they are returners to study, their course might look ‘low quality’ while actually the prospects of those students (compared to not having achieved that degree) have been greatly improved.

BTEC students, for instance, have far higher non-continuation rates on engineering courses than students with A level maths and physics. When they do graduate, they face higher hurdles in gaining employment because they may not have the connections, the extra-curricular brownie points and the right accent. Is it really fair for the OfS to hold an HEI that helps these students establish fulfilling lives to the same standards as a university with nearly half of its intake with straight As from private schools?

HEIs could also be penalised for being based in parts of the country with lower employment rates or for drawing students from the locality who might want to stay in their home region post-graduation. Social mobility should not have to mean geographic mobility. To many students a positive outcome means worthwhile employment in their home region rather than maximising their income by moving away. 

This is not only a fair choice for them to make, it’s a really positive choice for the Government’s goal of levelling up regions by creating high-skilled employment in disadvantaged areas. Penalising universities that support this is counterproductive.  

“Were this year’s graduates ‘low quality’? Or is it just that they graduated into the worst labour market for decades?”

Outcomes data will also be subject to the vagaries of economic circumstances. Were this year’s graduates ‘low quality’? Or is it just that they graduated into the worst labour market for decades? These effects can happen locally too, which means they affect individual universities and subjects. For example, if a big local employer exits a region, there may be a knock-on effect for local courses and graduates.

Employment effects take time to show up in the data – a lag of several years if you want to get a reliable picture. By design, the metrics will identify only those stables where horses have long since bolted. By the time problems show up in the data, the HEI will have known about it for a while and may well have either improved or closed a course if it was genuinely deficient. “Tougher measures” won’t support this in any way, but they might close courses that have turned around.

Positive employment outcomes need to show themselves quickly. HEIs won’t want to encourage enterprising students to start businesses that may take a few years to mature, earn money for their founders and create wider jobs and prosperity. Because that would be ‘low quality’.

And, of course, the focus on continuation and employment penalises any subject that attracts students who are studying for love of learning rather than for the sake of optimising their employment outcomes.

It also penalises those courses that allow students to do anything other than join a course, stay the duration, and graduate. None of the hop-on-hop-off flexibility that the Government has been urging in other policy initiatives and which the evidence says is needed.

By definition, some HEIs and subjects will always be less ‘successful’ than others according to the metrics.”

Worst of all, depending on how the ‘tougher measures’ are applied, it is statistically inevitable that a recklessly wielded axe will cut off healthy branches. By definition, some HEIs and subjects will always be less ‘successful’ than others according to the metrics. 

There will always be a bottom of the pile to be removed. Someone will always need to be penalised to justify the quality assurance process. Being in the relegation zone in the Premier League doesn’t mean yours is a bad team, it simply means a team whose performance has been relatively less good amongst the very best. Sadly, the sanction for HEIs and courses will not be relegation, but elimination.  

If the comparison of what constitutes a ‘low quality’ course is made at a subject level, rather than across all HE courses, then some departments that have good metrics compared to other subjects, will be made to suffer. For example, an engineering course that is ‘low quality’ in comparison to other engineering courses, may be sanctioned. 

However, on the other hand, if the comparison is made at HEI level, then certain subject areas will be the victim because their outcomes do not translate easily into highly paid workplaces. Heads I win, tails you lose. 

Ultimately, this is likely to encourage universities to be risk-averse in their admissions, effectively raising the bar for any students that don’t look like those who have been successful in the past, closing down the opportunities until only those least in need of a break can get a look-in.

Even if all these proposals were a good idea – and you may have gathered I don’t think they are – this level of oversight by the regulator might not even be legal. I am sure the OfS has consulted its lawyers carefully, but it’s hard to square this with what was intended by the Higher Education & Research Act (HERA). 

HERA’s progress through the chamber of Parliament saw more amendments than almost any other bill ever laid before the Lords and, among those that the Government was forced, reluctantly, to accept was the legal protection of the institutional autonomy of universities. The Lords could see that one day the regulator would be asked to overstep the mark and tried to set protections in stone. These proposals would undermine those protections, undermine that autonomy and – ironically – undermine the very standards of high-quality education for all who can benefit from it that they seek to improve.


Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are there other important points to make? How might this affect engineering courses? Please respond to our survey here.

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. We have also published a personal perspective on the wisdom of the proposals by the EPC Chief Executive.

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.