Office for Students proposals on Quality and Standards conditions of registration as a higher education provider in England
Prepared by Dr Elizabeth Halford, Principal Advisor and Professor Roger King, Director Wells Advisory UK
This summary is intended to provide a briefing regarding the main points of the consultation documents published by the Office for Students (OfS) which runs from 20 July 2021 to 27 September 2021. These comprise of:
- Phase 2 consultation – in which the OfS takes stock of its role and operations since 2018 and makes a number of firm proposals in relation to the ongoing and initial conditions of registration regarding quality and standards (the B conditions).
- Analysis of the Phase 1 consultation – conducted in the winter of 2020-21, which outlines the responses received from the preliminary consultation and provides an explanation of the reasoning put forward by the OfS in making the proposals of the Phase 2 consultation.
1.1 The four regulatory objectives of the OfS are emphasised as a backdrop for the consultation, namely that:
All students, from all backgrounds, and with the ability and desire to undertake higher education:
- 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, and
- receive value for money
This consultation indicates a direction of travel in the regulatory approach of the OfS which is favourable to HEPs seeking registration in England, because it acknowledges that not all new providers are automatically considered at increased risk of breaching conditions. It is therefore considered that an approach which restricts new entrants to the market to specified subjects, levels of study or capped student numbers would be disproportionate to the risk posed.
It is further stated that the effectiveness of the registration requirements for new providers will continue to be monitored and evaluated; however, there is no evidence from the current system that new providers generally present more risk than established providers. Instead, the experience of assessing new providers is that some have very experienced academic staff and leadership meaning that although the provider itself has no track record, individuals involved in establishing the provider do.
The direction of travel articulated in the consultation, with an emphasis on a risk-based and principles-based approach to quality assessment, continues to align with developments in Australian higher and tertiary education implemented progressively since 2012 by the Tertiary Education Quality & Standards Agency.
3. Implications for higher education providers
The implications of the regulatory approach outlined in this consultation indicate that HEPs wishing to apply for registration with the OfS can be confident that credible business plans, presenting robust evidence in respect of the conditions of registration will receive serious consideration.
In preparing their plans, providers should give attention to the extent that they will operate partnership arrangements and ensure that due diligence is undertaken in relation to these. These would be particularly relevant to any plans for transnational education, bearing in mind the scope of the proposals in this consultation. However, the wide scope of applicability, may have a positive impact on the student numbers which could be included in requests for Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) allocations made to the Home Office.
4. The proposals for quality and standards
The consultation sets out five proposals:
- Proposals 1 and 2 relate to ongoing conditions of registration,
- Proposal 3 relates to initial conditions of registration,
- Proposal 4 relates to provider compliance,
- Proposal 5 relates to the role of the OfS regarding the External Quality Assurance of integrated higher and degree apprenticeships,
This briefing will concentrate upon the aspects of the consultation most relevant to providers entering the UK higher education market, in particular, the proposed imposition of two initial conditions of registration, and consider the possible implications for Wells Advisory clients seeking to establish higher education provision in England.
5. The approach of the OfS to regulation and the scope of the proposals
The introduction to the Phase 2 consultation outlines the principles-based approach of the OfS as the regulator of higher education in England, setting minimum requirements applicable to all providers and all types of course, creating a minimum baseline of protection for all students and taxpayers.
Beyond this minimum, choice for students is encouraged, together with the autonomy of providers to innovate and pursue excellence as they see fit, in relation to their particular context and mission.
The OfS also states that the experience of regulating over the past three years suggests that more is needed to make clear the significant latitude available to providers in a principles and risk-based regulatory environment.
5.1 Quality and standards in higher education are defined as follows:
- The definition of ‘quality’ to include the outcomes delivered for students, and enable consideration of quality for different modes and levels of provision and for different groups of students,
- The definition of ‘standards’ to include new sector-recognised standards for the classifications awarded for undergraduate degrees.
5.2 Regarding the scope of the quality and standards definitions, it is proposed that regulation will apply to all of the students:
- registered with a registered provider
- taught by a registered provider
- studying for an award of a registered provider
This would include UK-based and non-UK-based students, courses delivered through partnership arrangements both within the UK and internationally, and students on any course of higher education.
Each registered provider would need to ensure it satisfied all the regulatory requirements relating to quality and standards for all of its relevant partnership activity, regardless of whether it was a lead or delivery partner as defined in the regulatory framework.
6. Partnership arrangements
Regarding partnership arrangements, this term refers to any arrangement where a registered provider works with one or more other partners to provide a higher education course (as defined in HERA). This includes:
- A partnership between two registered providers,
- A partnership between a registered provider and an unregistered provider,
- A partnership between a registered provider and an unregistered awarding body, such as Pearson.
No registered provider involved in a partnership can abrogate its responsibilities for quality and standards to other organisations within the partnership. This includes wherever a registered provider is using its degree awarding powers within a partnership. All proposals are intended to foster behaviours in providers that will ensure that students experience the required minimum level of quality and standards, whether or not they study through a partnership arrangement.
7. Transnational education
In relation to transnational education (TNE), it is explicitly stated that no other body is able to put in place binding regulatory requirements for providers in England. Whilst the QAA offers its’ paying membership the opportunity to take part in a review process that covers TNE activity, participation in this process is entirely voluntary and the outcomes of the process, whether positive or negative for a provider, will have no bearing on the OfS judgement about whether that provider complies with regulatory requirements. There is therefore no regulatory benefit or dis-benefit attached to taking part in the QAA’s voluntary TNE process and references to the UK Quality Code have been removed from the regulatory framework.
8. Proposals relating to new providers and new entrants to the English HE market
The proposals relating particularly to providers intending to apply for registration as a registered higher education provider (HEP) in England are contained in Proposal 3, supported by Annex C of the consultation, and focus upon two initial conditions of registration.
However, the explanations of the definitions of quality and standards, as articulated in the proposals focusing upon ongoing conditions of registration, will be helpful in informing applicants when preparing their submissions to the OfS.
8.1 Aspects of quality and standards:
- Academic experience – a registered provider should ensure that courses deliver a high quality academic experience for students. This includes requirements for the content, structure and delivery of a course
- Resources, support and student engagement – a registered provider should ensure that the students registered on a course receive the resources and support necessary to have a high quality academic experience and succeed on, and beyond, their course. This includes requirements relating to human, physical and digital resources. There is also a minimum requirement for student engagement.
- Assessment and awards – a registered provider should ensure that assessment of students is rigorous and consistent, and the awards and qualifications granted to students are credible and hold their value over time.
The proposed initial conditions are expressed differently, to ensure that the regulatory approach appropriately reflects the context for a provider that may not yet have delivered higher education but is able to present credible plans to demonstrate that it will do so, if registered.
It is significant that the OfS states that new and intending providers have found it difficult to identify evidence of compliance with the current B conditions, for example it can be difficult for a provider to demonstrate that students are provided with the support they need to succeed (as required by current condition B2) when it has no students. It is also stated that review teams have experienced challenges in formulating forward-looking ‘in prospect’ judgements for providers that are not yet delivering higher education and this presents challenges for the OfS in reaching judgements about whether initial conditions are satisfied.
8.2 With regard to the proposed initial conditions, Paragraph 76 states:
‘The proposed initial conditions therefore focus on the extent to which a provider (whether or not it has previously delivered higher education) will be able to comply with the ongoing conditions once it is registered, and are designed to test the credibility of its plans to do so. They relate to the following subject matter:
- This condition would require a provider to have a credible plan that, if implemented, would allow it to satisfy ongoing conditions B1, B2 and B4 from the date of its registration. The provider would also need to demonstrate that its plan would be properly resourced.
- This condition would require a provider to demonstrate, in a credible manner, that the courses it plans to provide once it is registered are consistent with the sector-recognised standards set out in Annex D. In practice, this means that the provider would need to be in a position to satisfy condition B5 from the date of its registration.’
Wells Advisory is able to provide a range of tailored support services to clients, which will assist them in preparing submissions to the OfS that are credible and identify relevant supporting evidence regarding the capacity and resources to deliver their plans.
The B Conditions proposed in the consultation on quality and standards:
BI – Academic experience
B2 – Resources, support and student engagement
B3 – Student outcomes (based upon published data and subject to further consideration)
B4 – Assessment and awards
B5 – Sector recognised standards
B7 – Initial condition relating to quality
B8 – Initial condition relating to standards
Note: further conditions of registration (A, C, D and E) apply to other aspects of OfS registration.