End of term report: the Office for Students must do better

The final report (pdf) on the Office for Students (OfS) of the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee reads like an end-of-term school report. Sent out earlier last month, the OfS appeared as an errant pupil who is disruptive and failing to learn lessons. Instead it thinks it knows better than the teachers.

TEFS looked closely at the proceedings back in May and by then the writing was on the wall. It was difficult back then to see how the OfS could survive the investigation of its inner workings. (TEFS 18th of May 2023 ‘Office for Students under scrutiny: students must be silent: the inquiry trundles on’). The report did not disappoint as it pulled few punches.

Led by conservative peer Theodore Agnew (aka Baron Agnew of Oulton) the results are staggering in the scope of the criticism.

There are as many as eighty items under conclusions are recommendations.  It is a  staggering critique of problems that must have exceeded the worst fears of the OfS management.  They cover every facet of the operations from  ‘The OfS’ duties and decision-making’ through to ‘Political independence and the role of the Government’ visiting ‘Financial sustainability’, ‘Value for money’, ‘Quality, standards, competition and choice’, ‘The student interest and student engagement’ and ‘The regulatory framework, sector relations and resources’. 

It’s a litany of failings that would sink any other public body.

Fit for purpose?

The context of the inquiry is laid out with the following,

“The higher education sector faces a looming crisis. Long-term problems with financial sustainability were compounded by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, with in-person teaching disrupted and acute financial pressures on providers. Subsequent inflation has increased costs for institutions, staff and students alike and eroded the value of the income providers receive from tuition fees. Reduced EU research funding is a major concern, as is the ongoing industrial action which is both caused by and has contributed to the instability in the sector. Given these problems, it is therefore vital that the sector’s regulator is fit for purpose”

Political interference is the root cause.

Reading past the long list of failings, it is clear that the root cause of the problem’s lies in a simple case of political interference. The idea that the OfS is an independent regulations is comprehensively debunked.

It is vital that regulators not only act with an appropriate degree of independence from the Government, but that they are perceived as doing so. This is evidently not the case for the OfS”.

Criticism of leadership at the top in Chair David Wharton (aka Lord Wharton of Yarm) comes with,

“The perception that the OfS lacks independence from the Government has not been aided by its Chair continuing to take the whip of the governing party in the House of Lords, whilst simultaneously claiming the organisation, as a regulator, is independent of the Government………. As a matter of principle, serving politicians should resign any party political whip they hold before becoming Chairs of independent regulators”.

The result has been a breakdown of relations and trust with student members, who felt side-lined, and universities, who are not heard.  The departure of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)  as the designated quality body in March simply emphasised the extent of political control that was becoming reckless.

This must mean the end of the OfS an organisation that is not ‘fit for purpose’ and a new independent body must replace it as soon as possible. But it will probably be down to a new government next year to repair the damage as the current regime tries to paper over the cracks.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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