OfS consultations: Higher Education regulation by decimation

The latest three consultations from the Office for Students (OfS) emerged yesterday. It could be that they are in effect the main response to the Augar recommendations that has been long delayed. The impact will have a massive effect on the HE sector and will lead to a ‘decimation’, in both the numbers of institutions and courses approved for student loans, as the proposals are rolled out. They amount to crude scare tactics designed to make errant ‘providers’ comply. The method was used by Roman commanders to keep the rest of the troops in line. It remains to be seen if this approach by the OfS heralds the decline and fall of the government.

Yesterday, the Office for Students (OfS) launched its latest three-pronged ‘consultation’ as part of its ‘Changes to our approach’ transition.

Earlier this month, the OfS closed its ‘Consultation on OfS strategy for 2022-25’ that installed the foundation for the moves coming this week (see TEFS 9th January 2022 ‘Consultation, Consultation, Consultation: The OfS rides again’).  Although none of these are a big surprise, they will certainly send a shot across the bows of all universities and colleges offering degrees.

The three consultations are on ‘Student outcomes’ (pdf), ‘The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’ (pdf) and ‘Student outcome and experiences data indicators’ (pdf).  They are large documents that pose many questions and concerns to be addressed. However, there is also little time to react since each will be closed to responses in a few weeks on the 17th of March 2022. It seems minds have already been made up.

The planners at every university will be working overtime to model the impact if the proposals are implemented in full.  This posting looks more closely at the ‘Student Outcomes’ proposal that has already attracted most attention. The TEF and data proposals arise from the propositions therein and these will be considered separately.

What is proposed?

It may simply turn out that the moves are designed to cut the number of students taking out loans since there is a low rate of full repayment presenting a significant loss to the exchequer.  The proposals will achieve this without the government or the OfS having to cap the numbers of students. Instead, the HE sector ends up taking the blame.

The text of 118 pages lacks clarity and is confusing on several levels. There is an underlying assumption that setting minimum standards is linked to better access to quality courses. The idea is to set a minimum threshold for universities and courses for progression and the types of jobs graduates move onto. This means, “we can adopt a risk-based approach to monitoring ongoing compliance”, but this is in itself inherently ‘risky’ (see TEFS 9th January 2022 ‘Consultation, Consultation, Consultation: The OfS rides again’).

Draconian sanctions will be applied for not meeting the threshold standards. The idea of measuring only graduate pay as an outcome seems to have dissolved in the mists for now. But the proposals are still a crude measure of a quality standard. The table below sums up the main proposition.

These are proposed as minimum targets for various degree levels and types. Of note are those for full-time first degrees that cover most students. The target for progression to graduate level employment is ringed in red and is set at what appears to be an arbitrary 60%.

What is graduate level employment in this context?

How this is defined will be the most important and contentious boundary. But it seems the OfS are intent upon setting a very high bar that will scare all HE institutions.

This is stated as, “the proportion of students progressing to managerial or professional employment, or further study”. By using the HESA Graduate Outcomes (GO) survey they also state, “We propose that progression will count positively if a student has progressed to further study at any level, or to managerial or professional employment, at the GO census date 15 months after they were awarded a higher education qualification”.

For suitable employment to count as positive, this is defined as Office for National Statistics ‘ONS Standard Occupational Classification 2020’ (SOC) major groupings by, “using groups 1 to 3 and our intention would be that the measure would reflect any future updates to SOC groupings”.

The SOC groupings are not described in the consultation but it turns out they are the top three of eight groups of employment derived from the ‘International Standard Classification of Occupations ISCO-08’.

These are defined as:

1. Managers, directors, and senior officials with a significant amount of knowledge and experience of the production processes and service requirements associated with the efficient functioning of organisations and businesses.

2. Professional occupations with a degree or equivalent qualification, with some occupations requiring postgraduate qualifications and/or a formal period of experience-related training.

3. Associate professional occupations with an associated high-level vocational qualification, often involving a substantial period of full-time training or further study. Some additional task-related training is usually provided through a formal period of induction.

It will be interesting to see how many graduates become ‘directors’ or ‘senior officials’ by 15 months after graduating.

The impact on widening access.

The OfS proposals acknowledge that this could be a major issue. However, rather than seeking to set out a solution, they continue to push responsibility and blame onto the universities (see TEFS 27th November 2021 ‘More pressure on universities. Targets for access and participation: Passing the buck’).

This is done by first demanding, “We expect higher education providers to improve access to higher education for the most underrepresented groups and to reduce the gaps between the outcomes achieved for these students and those achieved for other groups”. 

Then, “Improvements in access and participation can only be meaningful if they are built on a minimum level of quality and standards to ensure that all students from all backgrounds are able to succeed”.

The two propositions are not logically connected, as you could easily have one without the other. However, the demands mean that all universities must meet both targets and balancing these will be a tough call. Asking a university to ensure wider access, then progression to a good degree followed by a good job is already going too far.  

Maintaining standards, alongside ensuring successful completion of a degree, causes its own inherent tensions that will be a significant risk.  The actual academic ‘quality’ of a course could be sacrificed at the alter of progression. Also, by having to add support for ‘disadvantaged’ students, or those burdened by jobs, commuting and caring responsibilities, this will tempt some ‘providers’ to let them flounder to reduce costs. With around 64% of university students not needing part-time employment, it is easy to see how letting some of the others drop out could still keep within the 75% minimum target (see TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority – one million – of students have no employment when in full-time studies’). Could this be 10%?

Split indicators.

When looking at the various student characteristics to be considered, these are referred to as “split indicators”. It is of interest to see that the controversial POLAR classifications, based on postcodes, will not be used as a proxy for disadvantage.  Instead, they plan to aggregate the following characteristics from over four years of data: Age on entry to higher education course, disability, ethnicity, sex, domicile, eligibility for free school meals at Key Stage 4 (for young undergraduate students) and importantly, the ‘English Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) measure’.

This is a bold step that will paint a fuller picture and present many data challenges. However, they also will continue to use their ‘Associations between characteristics of students’ (ABCS) quintiles for continuation, completion and progression outcomes.

However, there would appear to be a considerable risk to access and progression for those with few family advantages. This could be exacerbated as the demands lead to fewer institutions and fewer courses available.

Cuts to HE institutes and provision are likely.

In the meantime, the proposals will ‘decimate’ the number of institutions and courses if they do not change fast. Many will start slashing courses, staff, and student numbers as they try to comply.  Others will find they cannot compete and leave the sector. The minimum targets being proposed may not be so arbitrary and we can ask, which institutions will be affected most?

The latest HESA ‘Graduate Outcomes’ data from 2018/19 reveals a clue to the reasoning and likely outcome.  By looking at the proportion of full-time undergraduate students who gain employment, the ‘top’ universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College, will be safe with employment rates around or above 80%. It might be assumed most are entering graduate level professional jobs. Beyond that, they also have more going onto postgraduate studies and have fewer than 5% unemployed. Similar profiles apply to the other Russell group of institutions. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many colleges offering degrees that will not be able to meet the targets. In the middle there are several post-92 institutions that sit around the borderline and will be vulnerable. They will have little room for manoeuvre and will have to contract by cutting degree courses. The decimation will be at the levels of the sector and on courses cut by the individual ‘providers’.

Regulation by decimation.

There is no doubt that the regulation of universities and colleges will come under direct political control. The idea of true autonomy is becoming a thing of the past. The appointment of James Wharton (aka Baron Wharton of Yarm) as chair of the OfS puts him in the position of political Commissar since, as a conservative peer, he is clearly not independent of the sitting government. The current CEO of the OfS, Nicola Dandridge, will be gone in April and a new leader will have to bend to the government’s will. We will be interested to see who that person is and how they buy into a ‘decimation’ strategy.

The strategy of ‘decimation’ comes from ‘classical’ management of troops in times of crisis. The Roman army was particularly keen on this as a punishment for rebellious soldiers. By killing one in ten, they set an example for the others if they did not comply.  The image at the head of this post is a short clip from the 1964 epic film ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’.  It was a pivotal point in the story (53 minutes in before the famous chariot race) that heralded the final downfall of Rome.

Classical scholars and historians will be very familiar with Edward Gibbons, weighty text ‘The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, published in six volumes between 1776–1789.  If he were alive today, he might be warming up his quill to write about the British Empire.

“The centurions were authorized to chastise with blows, the generals had a right to punish with death; and it was an inflexible maxim of Roman discipline, that a good soldier should dread his officers far more than the enemy.”

The influence of Roman History on the government might be partly explained by Boris Johnson’s somewhat eccentric views on Rome in his book of 2001 on ‘The Dream of Rome’.  His comparison to the EU is dangerous and his alternative could be better described as ‘The Nightmare of Rome’.

The rest of the UK.

The proposals apply to England only under the remit of the OfS.  However, there are consequences for universities elsewhere in relation to the TEFS and the data requirements.  Scotland and Northern Ireland are buffered to some extent because student numbers are already capped in both jurisdictions. This is because there are no fees levied in Scotland for local students and lower fees in Northern Ireland. Those universities can plan with greater confidence for now. Wales will be affected indirectly and there may have to be bolder departures from the English system to plan student numbers separately. The danger remains if the OfS denies loans to English students who try to travel to study elsewhere in the UK. Expect a big bust up when this happens. It will not be resolved easily.

A historical mistake.

It appears the ‘chickens have come home to roost’ for the government. The rapid, unregulated, expansion of undergraduate student numbers and Higher Education institutions since 2010 was a blunder of epic proportions. It started with the idea to create a ‘market’ in degree provision with ‘maximum’ fees set. The result was every ‘provider’ set the highest fee allowed and generated as many places as possible to maximise income. As an aside, that is how markets work.

There were more ‘disadvantaged’ students entering university, but this was in the context of all other student numbers rising fast. The participation gap between them remained wide. Regulating numbers whilst driving forward a more effective equality and widening access policy would have been far more sensible. The current proposals will not deliver this.

It is interesting that the 2010 policy changes that led to the university expansion were only formalised in the ‘Higher Education and Research Act 2017’. This in turn set up the OfS and defined its framework. The proposals yesterday cannot change that framework directly and the OfS would have to report to parliament to do so. Despite the many developments in the intervening period, the 2017 Act replaced the ‘Further and Higher Education Act 1992’ that established the Post-92 universities arising from Polytechnics. Now a Conservative government realises that things have got out of control on their watch. They are selecting reverse gear and risk spinning out of control.

Instead of going into reverse, it might be better to stop and invest in a completely new vehicle.

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