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After a week of largely disappointing news for UK higher education, Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University, fears that gloomy forecasts for the future of the sector may prove to be uncomfortably accurate.

Universities must involve students in governance under new OfS regulatory regime

Nicola Dandridge

A new regulatory framework for higher education launched by the Office for Students places a new requirement on universities to “engage with the student voice”.

Speaking at the launch event in London, universities minister Sam Gyimah said the OfS would place students at the heart of the system, and stressed the crucial importance of teaching quality and value for money. Access to higher education will not just be considered in terms of “getting in” to university but also “getting on” in terms of successfully completing studies and graduate employment, he said.

“I passionately believe that higher education is not a simple transaction – we cannot regulate universities in the same way we’d regulate water companies. We don’t want to narrow the debate, reducing all the issues to pounds and pence. What makes going to university valuable is the experience.”

A new requirement introduced since the draft of the framework was published last year expects institutions to demonstrate that students have opportunities to engage with their governance. Evidence could be the inclusion of a student representative on the governing body where appropriate, said OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge.

"It was felt by respondents and not just student representatives, that we had not adequately required providers to actively engage with their students, particularly in terms of governance. This now requires the governing body to ensure all students have opportunities to engage with the governance of the institution as this allows a range of perspectives and influences," she said.

Dandridge added that the word "consumer" to describe students had been removed from the framework as this did not adequately describe their relationship with institutions.

Running to 169 pages, the final framework sets out what institutions need to do to show they are delivering positive outcomes for students and value for money. Its “risk-based” approach is designed to place a lesser regulatory burden on those found to be meeting the requirements.

The new framework has dropped the idea of a “basic” category of registration for fear it would provide a “kite mark” that could mislead students.

Universities can register in either the “approved” or “approved fee cap” categories of the register from 3 April. Those with early application deadlines are expected to register by 30 April and the rest by 23 May, though it will be an on-going process with no cut-off date.

The decision to scrap the proposed basic registration category allowing institutions to register for a fee of £1,000 without the need to comply with OfS requirements, has been criticised for leaving more institutions off the register than on it. But Nicola Dandridge said the decision responded to concern that it would provide a benefit for providers in getting on the register, rather than a protection for students.  Institutions would be able to use basic registration as “some kind of kite mark” that could be misleading and misunderstood by students, she said.

Sam Gyimah, Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, said it was important to concentrate first on the institutions charging £9,000 a year but the OfS would be looking in future at ways of bringing smaller providers under its regulatory framework.

The OfS will be adopting a “robust but flexible” approach to senior staff salaries, Dandridge said. Transparency over salaries and other forms of remuneration would be the primary lever used, but if that failed to curb senior pay that could not be justified by the institution, the OfS would take action. It would be looking to see if institutions signed up to the remuneration code of the Committee of University Chairs, for example.

The OfS is ultimately answerable to the government and Gyimah set out his priorities for its work over the next year in a letter to OfS chair Sir Michael Barber. He said he wants the OfS to be “bold in its operations, explicitly supporting diverse, innovative approaches and models of provision”.  It should consider ways of encouraging the unregulated providers to sign up and “engage with good regulatory practice”.

Promoting a positive experience for students should include working to counter harassment and hate crime, making campuses places of tolerance for all students. The OfS should be a champion of freedom of speech, he said.

The OfS should challenge grade inflation in degree classifications, continue to deliver on the Teaching Excellence Framework subject-level pilots and support and encourage diverse provision, such as accelerated degrees and student transfers.  He also asks it to monitor and review the number of unconditional offers made by universities to their applicants and to improve the data available to students on the longer term outcomes for graduates.

Access and participation for all young people who could benefit from higher education would be central to its role. “I would encourage the OfS to support innovation in access and participation activities, encouraging evaluation of these to develop our understanding of what works in addressing this key challenge,” he said.


HEi-know has published a comprehensive Briefing Report on the new regulatory framework document. Found out how to access it here.