In Summary: The Office for Students Higher Education Annual Review 2019

On the 19th December, the Office for Students (OfS) published their annual review of English higher education for 2019. At 72 pages, the full document is comprehensive; this is an outline summary.

This summary covers the overview section with its foreword, introduction, and overarching commentary. Included are links to the review in all its detail on the OfS’s website.

Overview

The OfS English higher education 2019 review has three purposes:

• To set out the OfS’s assessment of the current state of English higher education.

• To reflect on the OfS’s progress in implementing a new regulatory approach with students at its heart.

• To set out the work that lies ahead for the OfS and the universities and colleges it regulates to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.

As well as a full downloadable document, the review is presented as an online guide and divided into six sections. The first section is an overview. This consists of a foreword by the OfS Chair, an introduction by the OfS Chief Executive, and overarching commentary about the review. Here’s a summary of each.

“We aim to ensure that every student, whatever their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.”

Office for Students (OfS)

Summary of the OfS Chair’s Foreword

The review begins with a foreword by Sir Michael Barber, OfS Chair. In which, he says that the higher education system must “recognise the transformative impact of our universities and colleges on the lives of individual students and their local and regional communities.” And, importantly, that it must make effort to continually improve them.

The OfS Register

The OfS was only established 18 months ago. For the office, much of the past 12 months has been spent registering universities and colleges in England. The Register’s purpose is to be a single, authoritative reference about a higher education provider’s regulatory status.

According to Sir Michael, the process of registration has made it clear that the English higher education sector is doing well, but also that there is room for improvement.

Improvement Goals for the English Higher Education Sector

Sir Michael writes that the OfS wants to see rapid and radical improvement in the access and participation of students. To achieve this, funding has been provided and a ‘what works’ centre established to help universities and colleges meet their targets.

2019 also saw the OfS intervene in areas where it hopes the higher education sector will now take decisive action itself, to avoid further regulatory intervention. These include grade inflation and the increase of unconditional offers. Both of which Sir Michael says do not “serve the interest of current, future or recent students and threaten to undermine current high levels of credibility and public confidence.”

Challenges

Sir Michael sites financial sustainability, improving the quality of teaching, and ensuring positive student outcomes as challenges for the higher education sector in the coming years. Yet, he also believes there is every reason to be optimistic.

“We have a world-class system. With strong leadership at every level and unflinching resolve, there is every reason to believe this can continue to be the case.”

Sir Michael Barber, Chair, Office for Students

Summary of the OfS Chief Executive’s Introduction

The Reputation of English Higher Education

Next in the review is an introduction by Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the OfS. She says: “Higher education in England is outstanding by many measures” and writes that overall in England, student satisfaction is high and teaching quality is impressive:

  • 83% of students were satisfied with their courses. – 2019 National Student Survey (NSS)
  • 71 universities hold Gold ratings. – Latest round of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF)

Issues and Focuses

However, Nicola emphases that the sector’s reputation must not prevent the recognition and intervention of concerns. According to Nicola, despite progress in recent years, issues remain in the following areas:

  • There are gaps in access and participation, with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds less likely to go to university, more likely to drop out when they do, and less likely to secure a good job following graduation
  • Admissions practices are not always in the interests of students
  • Prospective students can lack the information needed to make an informed choice about the content, quality and cost of their courses
  • Teaching quality can vary
  • Campuses are not always safe and welcoming places
  • Many students are concerned about the value for money of their studies

Each of these issues have been, and will continue to be, of key focus for the OfS. As Nicola writes, over the coming year and beyond, the OfS will work towards improvement in each area. And the interests of students will always be front of mind.

“By drawing attention to the evidence, and to areas of concern as well as outstanding strength, we aim to offer challenge, support, and opportunity for improvement that will make our exceptionally strong higher education sector even stronger.”

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive, OfS

Summary of Overview Commentary

The following is a summary of the commentary provided by the OfS as part of the review overview.

The Register

To date, the OfS have assessed over 500 applications and the Register currently consists of a total of 387 higher education providers. As a result of the registration process, the office has gained a large amount of data and information that will help to highlight and address issues of common concern and identify areas for improvement. A report has been published on the registration process to date and its outcomes for 2019-2020.

Also as part of the process, the OfS imposed some degree of regulatory intervention on the vast majority of registered universities and colleges. The plan is to continue the close monitoring of higher education providers and intervene where necessary. Areas monitored will include:

  • Access and participation
  • Quality and standards
  • Student protection
  • Financial sustainability and governance

Another major task for the OfS in the coming year will be the implementation of an efficient and effective monitoring system.

Access and Participation

With ambitious objectives for access and participation, the OfS wants students from all backgrounds to be able to enter higher education, thrive when they get there and have fulfilling careers afterwards.

The review reports that there has been a gradual improvement in the proportions of underrepresented groups entering higher education in recent decades. Yet, the OfS deem this improvement too slow and are “looking for radical improvement in progress”.

During the registration process, just 12 providers received no regulatory intervention in relation to the access and participation condition. The OfS will continue to oversee all access and participation plans and challenge underperformance. The office will also work to dispel myths and misperceptions about access and participation, as well as develop a better process for sharing ‘what works’.

“We believe that it is not possible to have excellence in higher education without equality of opportunity.”

Office for Students (OfS)

The Experience of Students in Higher Education

Students say that the quality of teaching is the most important issue in determining whether they receive value for money from their studies. The review explains that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is used to address this, as well as excellence in the learning environment, and the educational and professional outcomes for students.

Other ongoing focuses for the OfS in improving the HE student experience are:

  • Monitoring of financial solvency for universities
  • Prioritisation of the mental health of students
  • Prevention of harassment on the basis of race, religion, disability, gender or sexuality

“The OfS’s regulatory powers and objectives are designed to ensure that students have a high-quality experience of higher education and are supported to succeed in, and achieve positive outcomes from, their time there.”

Office for Students (OfS)

Value for Money

Research by the OfS found that only 38% of respondents considered their tuition fees to represent value for money.

Going forward, the OfS wants to see higher education providers deliver value for money for students and taxpayers. As such, the office published their value for money strategy in October 2019. Among others, one of the regulatory expectations is that providers make effective arrangements for transparency about value for money so that students can see how their fees are being spent.

Working with Students

With the goal of being an effective regulator, the review describes how the OfS has been making steps to better understand the experiences of students and draw on their expertise.

The office’s student engagement strategy, which will be published in spring 2020, will set out the approach for how the OfS will work with students up until 2023. The OfS is also looking at ways to expand the National Student Survey (NSS) to further amplify the student voice.

Graduate Outcomes and Employers’ Perspectives

The review reports that graduates continue to earn, on average, 35% more than non-graduates (around £10,000 extra a year) and are also less likely to be unemployed than non-graduates.

On the one hand, information, advice and guidance to students about careers and graduate outcomes have become an integral part of higher education provision, with employability featured in curriculums. Yet, there are still major disparities between levels of graduate employment across different regions.

The OfS is working with employers, universities and colleges to address the geographical skills gaps. Ongoing work also includes the encouragement of universities and colleges to consider how work experience can be incorporated into more courses.

Working with Higher Education Providers

The OfS describes itself as an independent regulator that acts first in the interests of students. That said, a key part of the OfS’s work is to develop relationships and ways of working with universities, colleges and other higher education providers.

It’s therefore important to the office that university academics and practitioners are listened to and collaborated with. Particularly on issues around student mental health, widening participation and graduate employability.

“Our approach is to act in accordance with our value of ambition, openness, learning and diversity. We seek to explain our decisions clearly, and to be transparent.”

Office for Students (OfS)

The OfS’s Key Areas of Focus for 2020


“We will continue to use our voice, and the tool of transparency, to promote what is good and innovative, and to challenge poor practice wherever appropriate.”

Office for Students (OfS)

Fairer Admissions and Recruitment

In the year ahead, the OfS plans to conduct a review of university admissions. This will include the evaluation of current models of post-qualification applications and the impact of increasing numbers of unconditional offers.

According to the OfS: “the existing higher education admissions and recruitment system is not serving the needs of students in a fair, transparent and inclusive way, it must change, and we will consult widely with students, schools, providers and others to understand their views and perspectives.”

Better Student Information and Protection

The review states that at a time when the value of a higher education degree is being questioned, it is more important than ever that students are able to make informed choices about what and where to study. The OfS believe that these decisions should be based on clear, correct information.

As a consequence, the office will be working with providers to improve the information available online for prospective students. They will also monitor higher education marketing and advertising to ensure students’ expectations are not raised unrealistically before commencing their studies.

Improving Teaching and Courses

When it comes to the quality of higher education teaching and courses, the OfS advocate that “a minimum level of performance should be delivered for all students, regardless of their background or what and where they study.”

Regulatory tools will therefore be used. Numerical baselines will also be set for continuation, completion and employment rates. Additionally, the OfS report that another part of this work will include monitoring the financial stability of universities and colleges.

The 5 Remaining Sections

Following the overview, there are five further sections in the guide. These are:

2. Regulating in the interests of students

This second section provides information about the changed regulatory landscape and the OfS’s approach to regulation. It also covers the registration process from 2018-2019 and the current financial state of English higher education.

Read more here.

3. A new approach to fair access, participation and success

This section is dedicated to a new approach to fair access, participation and success. Sub-sections include:

  • Access and participation before the OfS
  • Stagnation and change in access
  • The innovative regulation of the OfS
  • Working towards fairer admissions
  • Evaluating success

Read more here.

4. A high-quality student experience

The high-quality student experience section reflects on how the quality of teaching can be improved and the role of the OfS in this. It also looks at student mental health, as well as hate crime and sexual misconduct.

Read more here.

5. Beyond higher education: Ensuring successful outcomes

The focus here is on the degree dividend to graduates, the economy and society. This fifth section also covers the OfS’s role in terms of local graduates and uneven opportunities. Lastly, it discusses divergent outcomes, including degree attainment gaps.

Read more here.

6. Value for money

The final section in the guide looks at the definition of value for money. With consideration to growing student expectations, teaching quality and feedback, and the need for better consumer information. It also includes a sub-section on value for money of the OfS.

Read more here.

For more information on each, visit the full review on the OfS’s website.

For more about the OfS’s work in 2019, read this overview of the November OfS Improving Student Lives event to see the key themes that emerged on the day.