28 Jan 2021
The proposals outlined by the Office for Students risk exacerbating the divergence in approaches to higher education quality and standards in the UK. The proposals set out a rigid, regulatory-led definition of quality and standards, which unduly focus on the B3 metrics and constitute a move further away from the notion of the higher education sector co-operating with the OfS in establishing and adhering to regulatory framework based on the sector-recognised standards (as outlined in HERA 2017). This divergence away from an established UK-wide approach of sector and funder co-regulation concerning quality were raised as potential risks from the reforms that led to the creation of the Office for Students in HERA 2017. It is clear that these proposals, if implemented unamended, could undermine the position of the UK Quality Code as the pivotal sector recognised standard governing quality and standards. This would be a backward step as the code has worked well for many years in establishing and promoting the strength, quality and the international reputation of UK higher education. There is a risk that, in establishing different working definitions of quality and standards based predominantly on a suite of non-benchmarked metrical baselines, the Office for Students will damage the coherence and consistency of higher education quality assessment across the UK. This, in turn, could negatively affect the reputation of UK higher education overseas.
The proposal for the application of minimum absolute baselines is followed by some paragraphs throughout the document that note that the OfS will consider the context of individual providers. There is little explanation, however, about how this will happen, nor any sufficient justification for this approach. If context genuinely matters for individual judgments then it must, by logical extension, be relevant in the metrical indices the regulator sets set to assess providers against the quality conditions in the framework. If explanation is required to describe the OfS’s approach to using absolute minimum baselines by then applying context, this infers that the minimum absolute baselines are not appropriate to assess breaches of the conditions on their own. This casts serious doubt on the coherence of a single, sector-wide non-benchmarked metrical baseline for quality.
The challenge, however, is in the definitions that relate to areas that are outside the full control of the provider; areas that the OfS and its predecessor are fully aware of and have invested significant sums of money in to support providers, such as through grant funding to support students from widening participation backgrounds. These are the elements of higher education that are arguably more affected by social factors than they are by the quality of education offered by the provider.
The OfS’s argument that benchmarking ‘bakes-in’ lower aspiration for graduate success is erroneous – universities in practice expect and facilitate all their students to succeed to their full potential. There is no evidence to suggest that universities who take a higher proportion of disadvantaged students treat those students in a way that would discourage aspiration in that cohort of students, or more widely. The notion that sector benchmarks create complacency is false and is thus not a sound basis for quality assessment
The OfS announced in March 2020 that it was pausing all consultations and lowering regulatory requirements to enable providers to manage the additional pressures and priorities that the pandemic presented. As events have developed, and lockdowns have continued, these pressures have also continued. In addition, universities and other higher education priorities are tasked with carrying out mass asymptomatic testing and managing staggered timetables imposed by the government.
It is highly problematic for the OfS to introduce a consultation on such a fundamental element of its regulatory function during this time. It is likely that the OfS will launch its second stage consultation when higher education providers are still facing these additional pressures and priorities. Additionally, if these proposals become policy, they will be implemented either while higher education providers are still under these restrictions or in the early stages of recovery and attempts to return to a normal operating model. There is also a concern that, having been so insistent on a principles-based system, the OfS introducing a rules-based approach sets a precedent that other elements of the regulatory regime could also shift towards hard and fast rules rather than principles. The current direction of travel does not provide a stable, understandable, transparent environment in which providers can operate.