How will the new Office for Students operate? Professor GR Evans finds some worrying clues in job advertisements for the new regulator.
Alistair Jarvis, new CEO of Universities UK, presented a robust challenge to the Office for Students (OfS) in an article in Times Higher Education in late December.
He pointed out that its ‘relationship with the sector’ will be quite different from that of HEFCE. HEFCE acted as a buffer. The secretary of state sent it an annual letter announcing the grant for the year and the policies to be applied in its distribution. HEFCE then allocated the universities their ‘block grants’, which they were free to spend as they chose provided they kept, as the law required, to teaching and research and activities supporting those activities. Under its Memorandum of Assurance and Accountability, HEFCE required annual financial statements from universities as a check that they had done so.
Jarvis stressed that the OfS will be a ‘regulator’. It:
will be necessary for the OfS to establish itself as a mature, fair and accountable regulator that uses its powers to support students through proportionate regulation and judgement.
But he was concerned that the ‘consultation’ Securing Student Success, which closed in late December seemed unlikely to ‘achieve such a settlement without significant further development and clarification’.
So, he said:
There is an opportunity for the OfS, in the early months of its operations, to work with universities, students and other higher education providers to clarify the scope of its remit and set out some short- and medium-term priorities.
Indeed there is. The lack of an OfS website, when UKRI already has one at an advanced stage of development and full of information, seems to indicate a lack of even preliminary planning about the implementation of the duties which fall on the OfS under the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017.
What do we know about the OfS’s planning so far?
The only clue so far seems to lie in an Executive Recruitment website which seems to have been set up externally to OfS itself (using GatenbySanderson). This provides information under Priorities, Objectives and Duties. It summarises Sir Michael Barber’s speech of 23 June 2017 on his appointment as Chair of the Board. Governance ; the Seven Principles of Public Life; Further Reading. Our Team lists only the chair and chief executive and the members of the board transferred in from the HEFCE Board.
All roles lists three posts to be applied for: a head of legal services; a director of data, foresight and analysis and a director of external relations, all with a closing date of 15 January. In Schedule I the new legislation identifies the board as the only ‘members’ of OfS and thus requires the board to ‘appoint employees’ and ‘make such other arrangements for the staffing of the OfS as it considers appropriate’. But the board’s final members were announced only on 1 January, when these key senior posts were already being advertised.
The head of legal services will be helping to shape detailed planning:
They will be the principal adviser to the OfS on all legal matters and the advice they provide will underpin decision making at every level.
The Head of Legal Services will provide strategic support to the OfS board, the chief executive and staff, helping to set corporate priorities, legal strategies and objectives, and supporting all regulatory decisions. They will be required to create and recruit a new legal team, as well as commission external legal advice as appropriate. This role offers a rare opportunity to deliver tangible results for a new high-profile regulator.
The director of data, foresight and analysis will have:
responsibility for leading the development and implementation of the OfS’ data, foresight and analysis functions
be part of setting up a new and powerful organisation that has at its heart the interests of all students, and to help regulate and influence a sector that is of significant importance to the entire country.
will contribute to collective strategic decisions to develop new organisational strategy, culture and systems, and to enable the delivery of the OfS’s objectives.
As one of six directors reporting into the chief executive, the ideal candidate will be a strong leader with significant experience leading communications at an organisational level, demonstrable skills in managing multiple stakeholders, a proven record in developing excellent communications strategy in complex policy areas, and will be comfortable working in a fast-paced environment, handling issues at the top of the news agenda.
The OfS must consistently work with providers
Alistair Jarvis set out some objectives in his article, which it is to be hoped the successful applicants (to be appointed only after final interviews in the week beginning 5 February) will bear in mind:
- the OfS, in the early months of its operations [should] work with universities, students and other higher education providers to clarify the scope of its remit and set out some short- and medium-term priorities.
It does not seem to be envisaged in those job specifications that OfS will be working cooperatively with providers as autonomous institutions. All the job descriptions appear to envisage is planning and policy-making internal to the OfS. It is to be hoped the OfS will include serious rethinking of the need for co-regulation with institutions as autonomous entities.
- the OfS should be clear and transparent about the processes and steps for adding new, general or specific conditions for inclusion on the register of higher education providers.
There is a current register compiled by HEFCE and designed to make it easy to check in detail what a ‘provider’ is and what it may do. It was designed to complement the information in the existing Operating Framework for higher education. This provides an extensive resource of information, much of which will not change when the OfS takes over from HEFCE. What is to become of this existing register must be an important and pressing question.
- the OfS should recognise the principle of co-regulation in relation to quality and standards in which providers are responsible for safeguarding quality and standards as autonomous institutions.
On the ‘principle of co-regulation’ it is perhaps worth spelling out that the Quality Assurance Agency has been co-funded by the providers and HEFCE, thus securing its independence in arriving at its judgements. The independence of the Quality Body to be ‘designated’ for the future will be even more important’.