Who regulates the regulator? The Office for Students misses its deadline

The Higher Education Funding Council for England did an excellent job of maintaining a register of providers. So why is the Office for Students struggling, asks Professor G.R.Evans


The Office for Students (OfS), fully in operation from 1 August after its first-year transition period, is behind with its registrations of providers. Given the imminence of the annual Clearing process, which follows publication of A-Level results, this is of urgent concern. The student enquirer may look in vain for ‘official’ information about a particular preferred choice.

OfS seems to be finding creating a register more complicated than was foreseen, leaving much unclear for the current as well as the prospective student:

‘We are working through the registration applications as fast as we can, so if a provider is not registered at the moment, it might be registered soon.’

Or it might not:

‘Where we are still assessing applications, or finalising our decisions, we have written to some providers to explain that they may be eligible for “limited designation”.’

Among the applicants have been a number of the alternative providers of whom the Government expected so much in designing the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017. OfS Board papers for March mention twenty recipients of ‘minded to refuse’ letters:

‘for whom the OfS has developed a detailed action plan as to how it would oversee the consequences of a decision not to register, with a particular focus on protecting the interests of students affected by that decision.’ 

Or a provider may be refused registration altogether with three examples announced already.

Most recently another provider, the giant GSM, infamous subject of critical reports by both the  Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office about its recruitment practices, has gone out of business.


Hefce’s register was comprehensive and easily searchable

The reasons for OfS’ failure to get its Register ready for 1 August may lie within the organisation and the adequacy of its staffing levels. But perhaps there is be a more fundamental reason to do with the shift from a ‘buffer’ to a ‘regulatory’ function.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) took seriously the task of holding a balance between Government and higher education preferences about the spending of public money. In its last years it developed a register, full of information and very clearly set out. One could check by making a quick tick-box enquiry whether a provider was a university or not; whether it had its own degree-awarding-powers; and if so whether those included powers to award research degrees; whether it had a validation arrangement with a provider with powers to award degrees; whether it was approved for student loan purposes; what the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) had made of it and, if there were recommendations for improvement, whether those had been complied with. That can no longer be accessed online except through the National Archives web archive, where its intentions can be read, but its details no longer searched.

It is instructive to compare Hefce’s description of its own register as:

‘a directory of higher education providers regulated in England which have one or more of the following features: receive direct public grants for HE, have courses which have been specifically designated by the Government as eligible for the purposes of English student support funding, are higher education institutions (HEIs), have the right to award one or more types of UK degree,’ 

with  the OfS description, which puts the emphasis on the provider’s ‘regulatory status’:

‘The Register lists all the English higher education providers officially registered by the OfS. It is a single, authoritative reference about a provider’s regulatory status.’


Autonomy vs accountability – an uneasy history

There is a history of problems arising when Government decides it is time to take a firmer and more ‘regulatory’ hand with higher education providers. The University Grants Committee (UGC), which began work as an essentially academic body, acting as a buffer between universities and state funding in 1919, was replaced in 1989 by the short-lived statutory Universities Funding Council (UFC). The climate of the time was one of financial panic. The first report of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in 1989-90 had the title Financial problems at universities. The two implications it identified were ‘the importance of sound financial management’ and ‘the need for a review of the responsibilities of the University Grants Committee’. The UGC had failed, it said, to take ‘decisive action’ and it had been ‘an error of judgment’ not to report these ‘problems to Parliament in their annual survey at the first available opportunity’. For such reasons the PAC welcomed the ‘establishment of the new Universities Funding Council, with an expanded role, a more positive remit and greater powers and responsibilities’.

The UFC soon gave way under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to the four Higher Education Funding Councils. Under the same Act the polytechnics became universities. The new universities were accused in the Commons by Barry Sheerman of having ‘a degree of independence and autonomy that makes accountability difficult’:

‘Even the Secretary of State will agree that she has no powers to intervene, even when public moneys are obviously being misspent.’

The Chair of the PAC responded in the same debate:

‘My hon. Friend is right; with many such bodies, the problem is to control them. It will be up to the Departments concerned to exercise what control they can. As I have said before, I should like there to be more of a relationship between the auditing function and the procedures carried out by the National Audit Office.


A tightening of state control of higher education

The OfS is the latest in this series of attempts by governments to shift the balance between academic autonomy and state control of higher education in favour of the latter. If it is to survive it will have to demonstrate its efficiency as a ‘regulator’ operating the promised gateway to the very provision of higher education in England with:

‘Powers to operate a single entry gateway supported by a risk-based regulatory framework for all providers that imposes and monitors regulatory requirements as a condition of registration, including quality assurance and teaching excellence, widening participation, data and information, and the financial sustainability, management and governance of providers.’

It’s a big ask, with the answer increasingly pressing from August 2019.