A House of Lords committee has blasted the Office for Students for a lack of independence from government and for losing trust with “many of its providers”.
In a damning report, the House of Lords’ industry and regulators committee said the actions of the higher education regulator “often appear driven by the ebb and flow of short-term political priorities and media headlines”.
The OfS was set up in 2018 to be an independent body that reports to the Department of Education and parliament, with a brief to work with higher education providers to make sure that students succeed. It regulates more than 400 providers, including 153 colleges.
But the committee’s report, published today following a six-month inquiry, said the regulator “is failing to deliver and does not command the trust or respect of either providers, or students, the very people whose interests it is supposed to defend”.
The OfS’ own actions are often driven by “political priorities”, according to the Lords committee, which stated that while the regulator “does occasionally push back against the government, too often it translates ministerial and media attitudes into regulatory burdens”.
Witnesses cited occasions where media and MPs raised concerns “without clear evidence” about written English competence. The OfS then started putting out edicts requiring spelling and grammar assessment, without any investigation into whether that was necessary, the witnesses said.
The committee heard there was “widespread concern that it simply does the government of the day’s bidding”.
This perception is not aided by the fact that the OfS’ chair, Lord Wharton, continues to take the whip of the governing party in the House of Lords, while simultaneously claiming that the organisation, as a regulator, is independent of the government.
The committee said that although Lord Wharton was under no obligation to do so, it would have “helped to ease concerns if the chair had resigned the whip and become non-affiliated for his time in post”, as other Lords in similar positions have done in the past.
University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady has now called on Lord Wharton to stand down.
DfE letters ‘too prescriptive and unusually frequent’
Today’s report also pointed out that government’s relationship with the OfS is different to other regulators, such as the water services regulation authority, Ofwat.
For instance, the government sends an annual guidance letter to the OfS setting out its priorities for the year with multiple follow up letters, which are “often specific about what the government wants the OfS to do”. In comparison, government sends the water services regulation authority, Ofwat, high-level aims without advice on how to meet those aims.
The OfS has received 26 guidance letters from the DfE since it was established in 2016, according to the report, which added the letters are “too prescriptive and unusually frequent”.
The committee also identified a “worrying” perception that the OfS would punish higher education institutions for any financial difficulties, rather than help them. That had led to some institutions not engaging with the OfS when they face financial pressures “for fear of a punitive regulatory response”.
On top of that, the committee said the OfS’ regulatory framework has become “increasingly prescriptive” over time. It is “too willing to direct higher education providers’ operations and activities, showing little regard to the need to protect institutional autonomy”.
Distrust and friction between the regulator and sector
The OfS has also allegedly given insufficient thought to the impact of its actions, requests and decisions in adding regulatory burdens to providers. The OfS also makes “frequent and often ad hoc requests” for data that are “both burdensome and, at times, duplicative of similar requests from other regulators—including asking providers for the same data submitted to other regulators, but in different formats”, according to the report.
In “many areas”, it “appears unclear to institutions what compliance with the regulatory framework looks like or why the OfS requests data from them”, the Lords said.
This “lack of clarity for providers extends to the OfS’ approach to investigations, where it is not clear what has triggered investigations, the process involved or the likely timescales and outcomes”.
The committee said uncertainty over why the OfS acts “in the way that it does” has created “distrust and friction between the regulator and the sector”.
OfS chair Lord Wharton said the report provided a “helpful opportunity to hear from representatives of higher education institutions, students, and policy-makers, and understand these stakeholders’ thoughts on our regulatory approach”.
He added that the report will provide “further impetus for our work to refresh the way we engage with the sector we regulate, and those for whom we regulate”.
The OfS will respond “more fully in due course”.