Office for Students – what is it and will it really be independent of government?

Janet Downs's picture

The Office for Students (OfS) was propelled onto the public stage following the controversial appointment to its board of Toby Young, New Schools Network director, close colleague of former education secretary Michael Gove and unrestrained tweeter.

But what is the Office for Students? 

The Case for Creation of the OfS (June 2016) says:

‘This new public body will be a new market regulator in place of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).’ 

OfS was intended to meet the ‘need for a simpler, less bureaucratic and less expensive system of regulation, that explicitly champions the student, employer and taxpayer interest in ensuring value for their investment in higher education.’

So far, so seemingly uncontroversial.  But critics in the Lords  claimed the OfS would be overly bureaucratic and lower academic standards.  

The business case proposed that OfS would be given a statutory duty to ‘have regard to promoting choice and competition’ in higher education (HE).  Choice and competition are the buzz words which underpinned mass academization and the free schools programme.  But there’s no evidence that extra choice and competition raise standards.  

The business case says the OfS governance frameworks would be ‘sufficiently arms-length from government’.   But this is undermined by the proposal to give the OfS a statutory duty to allocate funding to ‘eligible providers in accordance with ministerial priorities’.  Not so much government arms-length as government hands-on, it would appear.

According to Varsity, OfS will be a regulator and have no ‘particular direct power’.   If true, this means the proposal for OfS to allocate funding in accordance with ministerial priorities appears to have been watered down.   We need clarification on this point. 

Varsity has produced a useful summary of OfS’s role.  Varsity raises concerns which have been buried under the controversy over Young’s appointment.  The OfS board is business heavy.  There’s only one student and no representative from the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU).  Varsity reported that Labour’s shadow higher education minister, Gordon Marsden, said the new appointments were a ‘huge failed opportunity’.

The OfS is supposedly independent.  But if OfS has powers to grant permission to new HE providers, then there’s a risk of conflict of interest. 

That brings us back to Toby Young.  He’s a visiting fellow at the University of Buckingham which in 2016 proposed to set up an ‘institute of leadership’ to fast track career switchers into school leadership roles after one year’s training.   The grant application was turned down by the Department for Education.  

But if the OfS can approve new HE providers, there’s a clear conflict of interest if any board member is attached to a higher education establishment which wants to open a new institute.

Perhaps there’s a need for a regulator to regulate the OfS.  No wonder critics thought the OfS could be a bureaucratic juggernaut.  

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