Stability for the higher education sector

The Office for Students is consulting on a new temporary Condition of Registration for maintaining the “integrity and stability” of the English Higher Education sector. This is a significant development for the regulatory framework, although one borne out of the current unprecedented circumstances relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and the potential for unhelpful sector-wide activities relating to this year’s admissions cycle. The focus of the new condition is on protecting the stability of higher education institutions in the short-term and on recruitment practices that are not in the interests of students.

We have previously published on our website a note on “the language of regulation” in which we highlighted the various powers and sanctions available to the OfS including Monetary Penalties, suspension of registration and deregistration.

As the OfS explains:

“The condition would prevent universities from taking action that could have serious negative consequences for students or the higher education sector during the current crisis. This could include:

  • changing student recruitment practices in an effort to increase student intake beyond normal levels, for example by converting existing conditional offers to unconditional, lowering academic or language requirements for international applicants, offering incentives for students to accept offers, or engaging in aggressive marketing activity designed to attract students away from other choices
  • making misleading statements about other universities in an attempt to discourage students from attending them, for example by claiming that other universities are failing to support or provide tuition to their students during the pandemic
  • making decisions that do not demonstrate high standards of good governance and could undermine public trust and confidence in higher education, for example by using government financial assistance for purposes that do not serve the interests of students or the public
  • failing to comply with public commitments, for example by publicly agreeing to abide by voluntary requirements (such as a code of practice) and then failing to do so
  • bypassing UCAS admissions processes where they would normally use them.

The OfS would judge the seriousness of any potential breach of this condition not only by the direct consequence of a higher education provider’s actions, but also by the potential cumulative effect if multiple providers acted in the same way. For example, while one university making several hundred unconditional offers may not, by itself, threaten the stability or integrity of the whole higher education sector, it may encourage others to do so, and widespread, indiscriminate use of unconditional offers could be seriously detrimental to student choice and the stability of the sector.”

A response to the OfS consultation is due by noon 26 May 2020.

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