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The Office for Students, transparency and the Social Mobility Commission

The public face of the Office for students (OfS) and that of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) could not be more different. This became obvious with tough questioning of the SMC by the House of Commons Education Committee this week. Major weaknesses in how the SMC is operating were exposed and did not look good for the future. The proposal for a wider ‘Social Justice Commission’ proposed last year by the Education Committee was ignored by the government; so the new SMC was expected to get a rough ride. However, its lack of professionalism was a big surprise. Its sloppy attitude to transparency and openness was in stark contrast to the OfS and indeed the Education Committee itself; that has similar support and resources to the SMC. There is no doubt that things must change and, if the SMC survives, it must work more closely with the Department for Education (DfE) and the OfS. The finger of suspicion must also be pointed at the DfE in its overseeing role with the SMC. If the position of the SMC is brought about by poor communication and a lack of concern by the government and the DfE, then this is a disgrace.

The OfS sets a benchmark for openness and transparency.

The Office for Students (OfS) has been in existence for over 18 months and is making considerable inroads into the regulation of Higher Education. TEFS has followed this progress with interest as its actions could have a profound impact upon the most disadvantaged students. Governance of the OfS and its proceedings are of considerable concern to many observers and especially the managements of our institutions and universities. The constant use of the term ‘provider’ by the OfS perhaps reflects its role as a regulator but it does grate. Universities are not like utility providers. It is not a simple one way transaction between a student and provider and this should be stressed more in communications and deliberations.

However, the general openness and transparency of the OfS is to be applauded. The proceedings and papers at its Board and Student Panel are updated regularly and available online. Register of Interests of the Board are set out clearly along with the Framework (released on 28th March 2018 within three months of the OfS launch in January 2019) for working with the Department of Education. All expenses are available in great detail and provide some insight into the workings of the operation. The TEF results for 2019 were also released yesterday and presented very efficiently by the OfS regardless of how we might view their overall utility and value for students. 

Some concerns.

The OfS is a big organisation that has taken on the previous roles of Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access that no longer exist. This brings with it a lot of scrutiny and the OfS has recognised this regardless of the political doctrine or direction that led to its existence.

However, a worry is that much of the OfS Board’s proceedings are hidden under a veil of confidentiality. The extent to which ‘exempt from publication’ crops up under headings involving ‘Risk’, ‘Monitoring, Intervention and sanctions for registered providers’ and ‘Intervention to prevent disorderly exit for registered providers’ sends out a message of impeding crisis over the horizon. The student panel has raised this as a major concern for them and they will need better reassurance that contingency plans are in place.

The student panel sits outside the main OfS board and this poses a considerable burden for the student panel chair who is pivotal as the main ‘go between’. However, after a slow start, the student panel is beginning to flex its muscles. In its latest report to the OfS Board from 2nd May 2019, it is “urged the OfS to look at ways to compel providers to make student protection plans much more visible to students and to ensure that they are clear and understandable.” The OfS will need to address this urgently. They might expect more to come with departing NUS President, Shakira Martin on the panel for another year.

Fair access and the OfS position is clear.

The OfS is fast to respond to information that might affect its mission. It also appears to be proactive on many important issues that impact upon Social Mobility. Something the SMC might like to refer to and indeed emulate. CEO, Nicola Dandridge explained the tasks and position of the OfS in some detail at the Higher Education Policy Institute Annual Meeting last week. She was responding in part to the launch of the latest Advance HE/HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey 2019 (discussed by TEFS 14th June 2019 ‘The student experience 2019: There is no such thing as an average student’). Her official response to the survey (OfS 13th June 2019 ‘Office for Students responds to HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey’) stressed the increasing problems with student mental health that the survey had exposed. She also acknowledged that the proportion of students “who believe their course offers value for money has increased for a second year”. But importantly, and in contrast to the HEPI positive spin, she observed that “fewer than half [41 per cent] agreeing their course is good value, there is clearly more to do to for universities to understand and act upon what constitutes value for money in higher education”. This is the important message arising from the survey along with the very worrying observation for the UK HE brand that over 60% of international students say they are not getting good value for money.

She followed this up with an article in The Times this week that sets out a clear demand from our universities (see it at the OfS www site: 18th June 2019 ‘Fair access and good outcomes are not a zero sum game’). In lambasting the attitude of some universities in how it recruits and supports students, she stresses the OfS position with, “The views of the OfS Research shows that if students from disadvantaged backgrounds make the right choice as to what and where to study, and are given the support that they need during their studies, they can end up performing just as well if not better than their more privileged peers” she goes on with, “We do not accept that access for disadvantaged students, and good outcomes, are a zero-sum game. Research shows that if students from disadvantaged backgrounds make the right choice as to what and where to study, and are given the support that they need during their studies, they can end up performing just as well if not better than their more privileged peers. Instead we see examples of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being inappropriately recruited onto poor quality courses, and not being given the support that they need. At some higher education providers, particularly those offering mainly courses below full degree level, one in five students drop out.”

Unfortunately the OfS fails to go far enough (or is probably not allowed) with its demands. These are directed at the university managements and not back at the source of many problems in government policy. The SMC might consider taking on this reverse role. By seeking better support for disadvantaged students in the universities, the OfS addresses only one wing of the problem. If better progress and the reality of ‘Social Mobility’ is to fly, then the other wing of resources and financial support for students needs to be made functional. The move by the Augar report to recommend maintenance grants is a good start.

The Social Mobility Commission is in stark contrast.

Bearing in mind the demands of the OfS, the recommendations of Augar and the pivotal role of the DfE, it is surprising that the SMC is not in the ‘thick of it’. Instead it seems distant and unconnected from bodies such as the OfS and indeed its master, the DfE.

This week saw a ‘melt down’ at the Social Mobility Commission as its Chair, Martina Milburn, and two others were grilled by a very sceptical House of Commons Education Committee ( as reported by TEFS 18th June 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows’). They asked key questions regarding a lack of progress and an apparent lack of transparency. TEFS has in the past criticised the apparent failure to report meetings (TEFS 22nd March 2019 ‘Social Mobility Commission: Where are they?’) and it appears that the missing documents were only posted online later on Monday 17th June 2019; the day before the hearing. From the exchanges shown below, it seems that the committee did not get the full picture before the hearing.

There are also doubts to be raised about the conduct of tendering for the £2m worth of research contracts that the SMC is undertaking. Apparently half of this has been deployed but details are still not available. These were not explored by the committee. Five were advertised by the Department of Education on the government www site with a deadline of less than the recommended ten days to respond. The failure of the SMC committee to openly declare its conflicts of interest to date is not compatible with its considerable research budget of £2m and the responsibility that lies therein. More questions need to be asked.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics


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