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The Office for Students, expertise and legitimacy in the regulation of higher education in England

This blog was written by Paul Ashwin and Charles Clarke at Lancaster University. It is based on a recent Centre for Global Higher Education seminar: ‘The Politicisation of the Regulation of Higher Education in England: The Case of the Office for Students’ held at the UCL Institute for Education on 25 July 2022.


In a recent HEPI blog, Susan Lapworth, who this month was appointed Chief Executive of the Office for Students (OfS), complacently and summarily dismissed concerns that the OfS is becoming politicised. Her case reflected the ‘winner-takes-all’ attitude of recent governments – the idea that whoever wins an election has a right to appoint whomever it wants to public positions and that the key criterion for any public office is the extent to which candidates are considered to have views that strongly align with the government of the day. This factor is given much greater importance than their level of relevant expertise and experience. For example, it is nigh on impossible to understand the 2021 appointment of the Chair of the OfS in any other terms. Indeed, Susan Lapworth confirmed this in her blog:

It is … hardly a surprise that ministers would wish to appoint people broadly aligned with the policy preferences of the government of the day. And a democratically elected government gets to make those decisions.

We do not discuss here the rights and wrongs of this situation and whether it constitutes the ‘politicisation’ of the English higher education regulator. We wish to focus on its implications for the legitimacy of the OfS as a regulator. We are commenting from the position of individuals who have researched higher education for more than twenty years and as one former Secretary of State for Education. We are not sector representatives moaning about the ‘burdens’ of regulation.


The legitimacy of the OfS’s role as regulator requires it to have the expertise to carry out this role. In recent years, the OfS has undergone two sets of changes that call into question whether it possesses this expertise: changes to its role and changes to its knowledge base.

In relation to the OfS’s role, its original Regulatory framework in 2018 was clear that, beyond a baseline, it would ‘encourage and enable autonomy, diversity and innovation’. This was echoed by its first Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge in an interview:

[W]e are very serious about not being a regulator that imposes unnecessary regulation. When an institution is above regulatory thresholds, we are not going to need to establish a relationship with them – they can go off and achieve their own thing.

However, a change to a much more interventionist approach is clearly signalled in its recently released 2022-25 strategy. In the 2018-2021 strategy, there was no use of derivations of the word ‘enforce’, whilst there are 12 in 2022-2025 strategy. Similarly, in the 2018-2021 strategy the only grounds for intervening in an institution was when a student’s ability to study at a particular institution was threatened. In contrast, in the 2022-25 strategy, there are six grounds for intervention. The grounds for intervention have been extended to include unexplained grade inflation, harassment and sexual misconduct, mental health and wellbeing, freedom of speech, and increasing the diversity of provision. The issue here is not whether these issues are important – of course they all are – but whether OfS intervention is an effective way of addressing them and whether it has the relevant expertise to make judgements on these issues. For example, harassment and sexual misconduct are incredibly important issues, but what expertise does the OfS have in this area and what possible intervention could a regulator and competition authority make that would meaningfully address these issues?


The OfS’s increasingly interventionist approach on an increasing range of issues appears to be related to a bloating of what the OfS considers to be ‘the student interest’ that it is required to protect. However, if one looks at OfS press releases, it becomes clear that the student interest is mainly defined by ministerial statements and reports in certain newspapers. It is striking that there are no press releases that show how the student interest is defined by the OfS’s own student panel or any other student groups.


At the same time as its role as regulator has become bloated, the OfS has lost significant expertise with the departure of key leaders with deep knowledge of the sector and their replacement with those with far less engagement with higher education. While there is certainly value in gaining fresh perspectives, it is also the case that those with less working knowledge of a particular area tend to make much ‘braver’ commitments to ministers about what it is possible to achieve. As well as personnel, the loss of the QAA as the Designated Quality Body for England represents another huge hole in the expertise that the OfS has to draw upon.


Overall, we have a situation in which the OfS has become more interventionist to protect ‘the student interest’, apparently as defined by ministers and certain sections of the media, while its expertise to understand what such interventions involve has fallen significantly. Moreover, it is very unclear what forms of intervention the OfS considers could be effective in changing university behaviours in the desired direction. Together, these points represent a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the OfS as a regulator.


In order to respond to this, higher education needs to challenge the way in which the OfS has framed ‘the student interest’. Universities need to work together collectively with student bodies to understand and map the variety of student interests rather than simply permitting this to be presented in terms that suits the narrow ideological stance of the current Government or the selfish interests of particular institutional or sectoral-group brands. This challenge needs meaningful work with students to developing a coherent sense of the diversity of students’ interests in English higher education and how these can be supported by effective regulation.


Paul Ashwin is Professor of Higher Education and Head of the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University and Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, an ESRC and Research England funded Research Centre. His book, Transforming University Education: A Manifesto (2020), argues for a focus on the educational, rather than economic, purposes of university degrees in order to understand their transformational impact on students and societies.

Charles Clarke was Secretary of State for Education and Skills from 2002 to 2004 and then Home Secretary until 2006. He is Visiting Professor in the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University and at Kings College London and works with educational organisations internationally. In 2020 he wrote, with Professor Ed Byrne, The University Challenge which argues that universities can transform the world by helping economies and societies to adapt and respond to the grand challenges they face, from tackling climate change to harnessing artificial intelligence. For more information, please see www.charlesclarke.org.


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