What is the Office for Students?
The Office for Students (OfS) is the independent regulator of higher education in England. It regulates universities and colleges to ensure they deliver “positive outcomes” for past, present and future students. 34 The Office for Students, ‘Securing student success: Regulatory framework for higher education in England’, The Office for Students, 24 November 2022, www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/1231efe3-e050-47b2-8e63-c6d99d95144f/regulatory_framework_2022.pdf, p. 13. It is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Education (DfE).
The OfS was established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA), coming into existence on 1 January 2018. 35 Higher Education and Research Act 2017, available at: www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/29/contents/enacted (retrieved 22 June 2023). It inherited parts of its role from two previous bodies – the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access.
What are the OfS’s main aims?
The OfS has four primary regulatory objectives, derived from HERA. These are to ensure that all students, from all backgrounds:
- Are supported to access, succeed in, and progress from, higher education.
- Receive a high quality academic experience, and their interests are protected while they study or in the event of provider, campus or course closure.
- Are able to progress into employment or further study, and their qualifications hold their value over time.
- Receive value for money. 36 The Office for Students, ‘Securing student success: Regulatory framework for higher education in England’, The Office for Students, 24 November 2022, www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/1231efe3-e050-47b2-8e63-c6d99d95144f/regulatory_framework_2022.pdf, p. 13.
The act also stipulates that the OfS must have regard to other duties while carrying out its role, such as the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers. Additional, sector-wide aims include ensuring that the higher education sector delivers value for taxpayers.
Since 2023, the OfS has gained additional duties to protect free speech in higher education through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023. 37 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, available at: www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2023/16/enacted (retrieved 22 June 2023). The body must now make protection of freedom of speech a condition of registration for higher education providers and operate a free speech complaints scheme.
How does the OfS achieve its aims?
The OfS has two main regulatory tools in pursuing these objectives: the register, and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). In July 2023, government also announced plans to empower the OfS to limit student numbers as an additional sanction on courses with high drop-out rates or a low proportion of students securing professional jobs. 38 Morton B and Watson I, ‘Poor quality university courses face limits on student numbers’, The BBC, 17 July 2023, retrieved 17 July 2023, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-66216005.
The OfS’ primary tool is its register of English higher education providers. Providers must register with the body to issue a degree, call themselves universities, sponsor international students for immigration purposes or allow their students access to student loans.
There are two categories of registration: approved and approved (fee cap). Only those registered as approved (fee cap) providers can receive grant funding from the OfS in return for charging students fees up to and including the fee cap. The OfS distributes grant funding to support aspects of higher education including courses where teaching costs are especially high (for instance medicine) or maintaining world-leading specialist providers (such as the Royal College of Art). Recurrent funding is allocated almost entirely by a formula that takes into account student numbers, different costs of courses and policy priorities such as improving access while capital funding is mostly allocated through a bidding process. 39 Office for Students, ‘Guide to funding 2021-22’, OFS, 28 September 2021, retrieved 18 July 2023, www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/8eeaeace-3b69-4d3d-aefc-a60b58d91b48/guide-to-funding-2021-22.pdf, pp. 15, 30.
To be registered, providers must comply with a number of conditions set by the OfS. Some of these registration conditions are mandated by HERA but the OfS also has a broad remit to set additional conditions to achieve its aims. If providers break their conditions, the OfS can issues sanctions such as a fine, suspension or even de-registration.
The OfS also runs TEF, a national scheme that rates higher education providers on student experience and outcomes. It is compulsory for larger institutions, and participants are granted a rating and permitted to charge slightly higher tuition fees. 40 Office for Students, ‘About the TEF’, OFS, 7 October 2022, retrieved 20 July 2023, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/teaching/about-the-tef/
What issues has the OfS faced?
The OfS has faced criticism over appointments to its leadership board. In 2018, non-executive director Toby Young resigned a week after being appointed following sustained criticism of his “offensive” past comments on social media and lack of experience within the higher education sector. 41 Phipps C, Rawlinson K and Mason R, ‘Toby Young resigns from the Office for Students after backlash’, The Guardian, 9 January 2018, retrieved 22 June 2023 www.theguardian.com/media/2018/jan/09/toby-young-resigns-office-for-students
In 2021, the process of appointing Lord Wharton to chair the OfS was criticized by the public appointments commissioner for not being sufficiently independent 42 Walker P, ‘Former Tory MP in row over appointment as head of Office for Students’, The Guardian, 10 February 2021, retrieved 22 June 2023, www.theguardian.com/education/2021/feb/10/former-tory-mp-in-row-over-appointment-as-head-of-office-for-students – Wharton was the former manager of Boris Johnson’s 2019 Conversative leadership campaign, a former Conservative MP and a sitting Conservative peer.
In January 2023, an independent review commissioned by the OfS reported that higher education providers did not perceive the OfS as independent from government and were often confused by its processes. 43 Wood M, Renken S, Wheeler C and Kedros J, ‘Report for the Office for Students: Provider engagement’, Shift Learning, 26 January 2023, retrieved 23 June 2023, www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/f86acfa2-5c6e-4e6e-9af5-40dada342862/ofs_provider-engagement-research-report.pdf In March, the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee announced an inquiry into the OfS’s work, in part to examine its relationship with the government. 44 UK Parliament, ‘New inquiry launched into the work of the Office for Students’, 3 March 2023, retrieved 22 June 2023, https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/517/industry-and-regulators-committee/news/186449/new-inquiry-launched-into-the-work-of-the-office-for-stu…