Higher Education regulator looks ahead to 2021

The regulator of higher education in England, the Office for Students, published its annual review on 3 December 2020.

The annual review noted that as at November 2020, there were 414 institutions on the OfS Register of Higher Education Providers and that, earlier in the year, the OfS had published Access and Participation Plans for over 200 universities and colleges.

The annual review looked back over 2020 and the ways in which the OfS had adapted its regulatory approach in the light of the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Various consultations on new regulatory requirements were paused during the year (for example in respect of harassment and admissions) and some existing regulatory requirements were modified (for example in respect of reportable events).

A new time-limited regulatory requirement was imposed in respect of unconditional offers in order to provide stability across the sector. The outcome of a consultation on the new requirements in respect of market exit is awaited.

The OfS has indicated that it intends to 'reset the regulatory dial' and publish revised guidance on how it proposes to monitor higher education providers and when and how it will intervene.

A new consultation was launched in November in respect of quality and standards and the OfS has made it clear that 'raising the bar on quality and standards' is a priority for 2021.

The other priority areas have been identified as: maximising the potential for digital learning and tackling 'digital poverty'; and, having a clearer focus on mature students which appears to be linked to the need for re-skilling as we emerge from the pandemic.

The OfS has also indicated that it is developing its regulatory approach to freedom of speech.

We will also await to hear the future of the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The OfS has also confirmed that it will work with the Department for Education following the announcement in November of a consultation on 'Post Qualification Admissions'. As affirmed by the OfS, the 'admissions process must be underpinned by the principle and practice of fair and equal opportunity for all.' The OfS noted in its annual review that there has been a widening gap for those entering higher education from areas of low and high participation during the pandemic.

2021 looks set to be another year of change on the regulatory landscape.

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