Higher education: looking back, looking ahead

In the ancient Roman religion, the god Janus is reputed to have had two faces, one looking back and one looking ahead. As we stand at the door of a new year and a new decade, what do we see for the higher education and research sector?

One perspective comes from the Office for Students (OfS) which is the new regulator for "English Higher Education Providers". OfS was established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and took up its full suite of statutory powers on 1 August 2019.

OfS Annual Report

The OfS published its first annual report on 19 December 2019 as the last decade drew to a close. The higher education sector in England was recognised by OfS to be "world class", playing a significant role in driving forward economic development, social mobility and cultural enrichment, both regionally and nationally. The role of higher education in transforming lives was highlighted. Indeed, "greater equity in access and participation" by students is the area which OfS has made clear that it is looking to see the greatest improvement.

During 2019, OfS contended with the challenge of considering applications from bodies wishing to be accepted for the new public Register of English Higher Education Providers.  The annual report confirms that 387 bodies had become registered providers as at the date of publication.  Registration entitles students to apply for Student Loans Company funding and for providers to be able to sponsor international students.  However, OfS noted that it had refused registrations where applications fell short of what was required by the OfS in respect of the 24 conditions of registration set out in the new regulatory framework, highlighting the inadequacy of students' educational outcomes and providers' financial stability.  It was also noted by OfS in the annual report that only 12 bodies registered by the OfS did not receive any regulatory intervention in respect of the requirements for access and participation.

The annual report notes that this is a challenging time for higher education bodies as they seek to navigate a "complex policy, political and economic environment".  Particular challenges were noted by OfS around ensuring financial sustainability, improving the quality of teaching and ensuring positive student outcomes from their higher education experience. OfS noted that it has intervened in respect of "unexplained grade inflation" and the "injudicious use of unconditional offers".

Reportable Events

In October 2019, the OfS published new Regulatory Advice documents relating to how it would monitor compliance by registered providers with the conditions of registration and setting out its expectations for institutions to inform it of "reportable events".  Although the OfS is also the Principal Regulator for charity law compliance for those institutions which are exempt charities, OfS appears in our view to have taken a divergent path to the Charity Commission in respect of its requirement for registered charities to report 'serious incidents'.  It remains to be seen whether these paths will diverge further or come into closer alignment as the new year/decade unfolds. 

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