The watchdog for students is ‘underperforming’ and ‘faces a looming crisis’, report warns
- House of Lords report: Watchdog not ‘trusted by many providers it regulates’
- It has sparked calls for chairman Lord James Wharton to stand down from role
The Office for Students (OfS) is ‘underperforming’ as it ‘faces a looming crisis’ in higher education, it is claimed.
According to a House of Lords report published today, the authority – which is Britain’s regulator for the third-level sector – is not ‘trusted by many of the providers it regulates’.
It adds that OfS actions ‘often appear driven by the ebb and flow of short-term political priorities and media headlines’.
Lord Hollick, chair of the Industry and Regulators Committee, said: ‘At a time when the higher education sector faces a looming crisis caused by financial instability, increased costs, industrial action and reduced EU research funding, it is vital that the sector’s regulator is fit for purpose.
‘However, it was evident throughout our inquiry that the OfS is failing to deliver and does not command the trust or respect of either providers or students, the very people whose interests it is supposed to defend.
‘We were surprised by the regulator’s view that the sector’s finances are in good shape, which is not an assessment that we or most of our witnesses share.’
With the report calling on the regulator to ‘adopt a more strategic, less combative approach to its work’, it has sparked calls for chairman Lord James Wharton to stand down.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘This report is more evidence that the Office for Students is failing students and is not fit for purpose.
‘It was asleep at the wheel when staff were forced to take industrial action, and has done nothing to support students or push employers to settle the dispute.
‘It’s clear that the sector does not have confidence in how the regulator is operating and the chair, Lord Wharton, should do the decent thing and step down.
‘The regulator now needs to properly engage with the sector and call on employers to restart negotiations on pay, workload and conditions as a matter of urgency.’
Meanwhile, the OfS published the findings of two assessment visits focused on the quality of Business and Management courses at two universities.
At the University of Bolton, the assessment team found areas of concern and at London South Bank University, the assessment team found no areas of concern.
These assessments included on-site visits, with the teams considering a range of evidence, including from staff and students.
The OfS will now consider whether any regulatory action is appropriate, it said.
Lord Wharton said: ‘The committee, and others, have been right to signal the particular importance of financial sustainability in higher education.
‘We monitor individual institutions, gather intelligence to identify system-wide risk, and publish our analysis of financial sustainability across the sector.
‘Our detailed analysis of the data universities provide to us suggests that many are in good financial shape.
‘We are also alive to significant risks, including the impact of a fixed undergraduate tuition fee, cost pressures and an overreliance by some on international students.
‘Our important work in this area is often not publicly visible. But we will continue to identify risk and use the tools we have to protect the interests of students if an institution encounters financial difficulties.’