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New chair, new opportunity: Our relationship with the Office for Students

The Office for Students has a new chair. It could be time for a relationship reboot. Tony Strike, University Secretary at the University of Sheffield, considers the challenges that Lord Wharton will face, and how we can forge a better partnership with the OfS moving forwards.

Will Lord Wharton hit the reset button?

Lord Wharton has been appointed as the new chair of the Office for Students.

If we hope for a relationship reboot, perhaps we can support Lord Wharton by appreciating the challenges he will face as chair of the Office for Students (OfS) and reset our responses.

The perspective of university secretaries and registrars may help Lord Wharton. After all, we are at the receiving end of the output from the OfS. In the past, we may have objected to what we perceived as an admonishing tone, but we were still likely to agree with the aims.

This blog post explores two challenges that Lord Wharton will face:

  • Instructional behaviours conflicting with self-determination
  • Disruptive innovation in the era of compliance

Instructional behaviours conflicting with self-determination

Firstly, the OfS must have regard to guidance given to it by the Secretary of State, whilst simultaneously performing its function to protect the autonomy of universities.

The OfS seems caught between the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA), which confers and limits its functions, and a government which is interventionist, for example on freedom of speech in our universities. The risk is that the OfS is bypassed or instructed.

WonkHE recently jested the OfS board ought to have a standing item to consider the latest ministerial guidance. Of course, the OfS and Department for Education (DfE) produce their own stream of outputs. However, like an early scene from the first Potter movie, this hasn’t stopped letters arriving directly from ministers.

The result of this jockeying plays out in governing bodies, with the risk that previously self-regulating, independent boards can be reduced into compliance behaviours.

Disruptive innovation in the era of compliance

Secondly, it’s hard to see how a new chair can deliver risk-based regulation, in the absence of alternative providers entering and growing the market.

Without the disruptive innovation of challenger institutions, it’s easy to accuse the OfS of placing unnecessary burdens on established universities, with the standard apology: “This is not aimed at institutions like yours.”

The regulatory regime remains stubbornly unitary, both comprehensive in its scope and applicability. All universities fall under the eye of the regulator, not just the dodgy new for-profit colleges.

We feel this at an institutional level.

Universities are not left to operate on their own, to innovate, to come up with the best solutions to problems. Regulatory guidance abounds. The notion of deliberately seeking disruptive innovation has been replaced with the semantics of compliance, which is not sanctionable.

Can a way forward be found?

Autonomy-supportive intervention

On the first challenge, the Secretary of State congratulated Lord Wharton by writing, “I am confident [he] has the skills and experience to guide our [sic] students and the sector through these difficult times.”

An unintentional error, revealing what many regard as a subconscious feeling in the DfE that universities are organs of the state, and their students are “ours.”

How can the relationship between trust and control be balanced to ensure an adequate response to the societal demands on higher education, whilst also preserving the necessity of institutional and academic freedom?

On its own, good governance is not sufficient to ensure quality and standards in teaching, research, and the student experience. However, good governance is a necessary condition for the success of institutions in meeting their strategic (or charitable) objects.

Governing bodies seek assurances from their leaderships of necessary actions. While universities take a variety of forms, they do all have the constitutional competence to manage. HERA recognised and protected that autonomy.

Therefore, the OfS could give primacy to its E Conditions of Registration, relating to good governance. If a university encounters issues with financial sustainability, reliable standards, access or participation, this could be seen through a governance lens as the cause and remedy. Strong corporate governance and accountability, proper attention to problems and to their correction, is a positive response to regulation.

The OfS should not ignore the strength and autonomy of the established universities. Instead, the OfS could recognise their standing, and work with their governing bodies, in the common cause of further ensuring quality.

Students’ unions and their officers know this already. They are highly effective at presenting the needs of students. Given university governors are often also trustees, the student view is at the heart of what drives institutional decision-making.

Mutual discovery of common interest

The market fundamentalism that created the HERA, the OfS, and the Teaching Excellence Framework has gone.

The talk in 2015, up to 2017, was about how alternative providers would enter the market under a single regulatory system, with less bureaucratic quality assurance.

In the world as imagined in 2015, young people needed protection from the hype of new ‘challenger’ providers, and someone needed to ensure the student-consumers got what they purchased.

It’s an irony that the legacy of this vision of market dynamism is bureaucratic regulation of the conventional sector. Perversely, in the absence of new ‘challenger’ providers, this weakens those mature universities by consuming their scarce resources. It turns their governing bodies into servants of a regulator.

Conventional universities should not shy from tougher regulation. Tough regulation does not need to come wrapped in opprobrium or bureaucracy. We all suffer if high absolute standards are not maintained and evidenced. No-one wants low quality provision or providers. We all have the interests of students’ at heart.

Given the OfS wants what governing bodies want, it is surprising that we have rhetoric where higher education faces a charge sheet, where the effective remedy is seen to be financial sanction.

The OfS can be assertive about its needs and work with universities on how best to achieve them. If those universities that do not represent increased risk were subject to less extensive reporting, or a higher materiality threshold, the earned trust and autonomy could become a positive incentive and permit greater innovation.

The penalties proposed by the OfS remove funding from institutions that are largely not-for-profit charities. Were the OfS to demand a governing body invest similar amounts to improve provision, where it was found to be lacking, they might find common cause, because charitable objectives would be served.

Positive regulatory relationships

Achieving this restart may require our language to shift from complaint, avoidance or opposition towards constructive engagement.

Many, including me, gave up when the Regional Officers disappeared, and the OfS email addresses became anonymous. However, that attitude is probably just as frustrating for those inside the OfS.

Communications with the OfS should be more disciplined and unambiguous compared to the off-the-cuff, chatty informality many of us remember fondly of former HEFCE colleagues.

A charitable view of what the OfS is seeking to achieve may help us get the regulation we deserve. First, the OfS may need convincing that we are open to regulatory input.

We may have to learn how to get along with our regulator.

Tony Strike is University Secretary at the University of Sheffield, convenor of AHUA North, a member of the board of the European Association of Institutional Research, editor of Higher Education Strategy and Planning (2018) and co-editor of Governing Higher Education Today (2019), both published by Routledge.