Regulating quality

The Skills & Post-16 Education Bill was introduced to Parliament in the House of Lords and contains a range of provisions for further and higher education, including in respect of the role and functions of the Office for Students, the regulator for higher education in England.

The explanatory notes to the Bill states that the purpose of Part 2 of the Bill is to make “explicit the ability of the Office for Students (OfS) to assess the quality of higher education provided by registered higher education providers in England by reference to student outcomes.”

Clause 17 (5) of the Bill gives the OfS a wide discretion as to how to assess “student outcomes” including by reference to course continuation rates, completion rates, and progression of students to further study or employment.

Clause 17(6) and (7) empower the OfS to determine and publish minimum expected levels of student outcomes which apply to all registered higher education providers. The OfS is not to be obliged to set different expected levels in respect of different types of institution, different courses or differences in student characteristics.

These proposed amendments to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 are linked to phase 1 of an OfS consultation on quality and standards.

The OfS is also consulting on new conditions of registration relating to quality and standards which are to apply to all registered providers of higher education in England.

New ongoing conditions of registration are proposed relating to quality:

  • B1 academic experience – the OfS will require providers to make sure courses deliver a high-quality academic experience for students.
  • B2 resources, support and student engagement – this is to include ‘human, physical and digital resources’ and a minimum expectation for student engagement.
  • B4 assessment and awards – assessments are to be rigorous and consistent and qualifications are to hold their value over time.

A new ongoing registration condition is proposed in respect of standards:

  • B5 reliable standards – standards set by providers must continue to meet ‘sector-recognised standards’ which will include standards for awarding different classes of degree.

New initial conditions of registration (B6 and B7) are proposed for new providers of higher education.

The OfS also proposes a risk-based approach to regulating quality, namely:

  • OfS would ask the Designated Quality Body (the Quality Assurance Agency) to gather evidence to satisfy the two initial conditions of registration;
  • for registered providers, OfS proposes a flexible and risk-based approach to intervention where there is a risk of a breach of a condition, asking the Designated Quality Body to investigate where OfS considered that necessary; and
  • OfS would take into account a higher education provider’s compliance history when considering other benefits of registration, for example eligibility for the Teaching Excellence Framework and applications for degree awarding powers / university title.

The last area of the current OfS consultation (which expires on 27 September 2021) relates to the OfS becoming responsible for external quality assurance for integrated higher and degree apprenticeships

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