The key regulatory tool for English higher education will be the OfS Register of providers. The conditions that have to be met and maintained will be the core means for keeping HE providers in line. If you’re not on the register you can’t be a university, award degrees, have your UK/EU students get loans or have your international students get visas.
But if the Register is so important, then how it’s progressing is important to the sector too, as is a concern that it might not be as all-encompassing as might have been imagined.
Fiona McIntyre noted that OfS had missed its latest deadline for getting ‘most’ providers on the register by the end of October. Of the 327 who had applied by May, only 204 had been approved, six of them with conditions. by 18 September there had been 431 applications. There are 123 to go from the first tranche, by my reckoning 5 of which are universities, and then another 104 how applied over the summer. I’m interested in conditions; the latest batch includes two universities who have to demonstrate better plans in B3, concerning student persistence and outcomes.
Who’s not on
At the consultation stage, it was thought that in 2018/19 there would be 88 providers in the “approved” category and 390 in the “approved fee-cap” category (split 58 alternative providers, 204 further education colleges and 125 higher education institutions). At that point I was particularly worried about the providers missing from the approved categories – some being allowed into the dubious “registered basic” category (which was thankfully dropped). OfS have a spreadsheet of all those providers who were regulated either by HEFCE or who had specific course designation from DfE. There are 807 providers on that list. There’s also the matter of approval for Tier 4 licences from the Home Office. There are HE providers on that register who were running courses without funding but who needed visas for their students; both campuses of international universities but also UK-based providers – there’s no easy way to count how many of those holding Tier 4 (General) licences were offering HE programmes.
So, if last year there were at least 807 providers under regulation, there’s an issue with 431 applying to OfS. That’s fewer than DfE projected would join. What’s happened to the 376 – at least 45% of the HE providers in England last year?
My hypothesis is that a lot of the provision has moved towards franchising. One of the striking things about the OfS framework was the way it made a clear distinction between “validation” and “franchise”. In OfS terms there is now a clear difference: validation is where a provider A’s students get the award of provider B; franchise arrangements are where provider A teaches the students of provider B. In validation, provider A needs to be OfS approved for students to get fee or maintenance loans of visas. But in franchise deals, provider A is all but invisible to OfS.
Let’s imagine a case study. There’s a provider called Alpha College which operates multiple degree programmes franchised from Beta University. There’s not much publicly available information about Alpha College but its courses are on Unistats. Some of the courses seem to be having a rocky time, but that happens. The data for some show a very low continuation rate, data on others shows low satisfaction linked to course management failings.
As a franchise, students apply through UCAS to Beta who are regulated accordingly. However, it’s hard to see how OfS will bring that to bear. There’s reference to Alpha College in Beta University’s Access and Participation Plan, but not the detail that covers students at the university. Unistats data can be complex for small alternative providers, and, course, doesn’t exist yet for postgraduate courses at all. The Student Protection Plan at Beta might not be as concrete about students at Alpha.
These generates problems for OfS. They don’t have a direct relationship with Alpha College, so any issue they do have has to be dealt with as a condition of registration for Beta. Alpha will have some QAA interactions, depending on its status, which will feed information in. Indirect oversight of colleges offering HNDs by Edexcel is one of the reasons that we have the OfS. It would be a unintended consequence of the new framework if OfS now has less oversight than before.
Weirdly, following the precedent set by UA92, DfE can allow Alpha to be renamed Alpha University Campus and yet OfS have no direct oversight of something the local press will insist on calling a ‘university’ thereafter.
Worse may follow. Remember that Jo Johnson accused universities of acting like bouncers, not letting colleges in to be the competition? The ability to use franchise with more limited oversight by OfS might allow new providers into the system, but now all the risk falls on the university. A risk averse university may now be more reluctant to franchise to a provider which might trigger a condition of approval, a QAA HE Review or some other sanction. This might be the worst unintended consequence; a reluctance to support new providers.
The Office for Some Students
The forward schedule for OfS Board meetings has ‘validation’ on agendas for the next two meetings, so it’s a fair assumption that as well as the issue of how OfS will discharge its own validation powers, the issue of the number of providers operating under franchise will be getting attention. But with OfS stressing its role in protecting students, those being taught at providers not on the register might be surprised how little OfS offers them.
[This article first appeared on Wonkhe on 12 November 2018 – it has been updated to reflect the number of providers that applied by 18 September and those on the OfS Register on 22 November]