Transparency and trust
The method to the OfS mission
As a regulator, we have been ambitious in our aspirations because regulation can raise standards and support positive change.
But we’re modest about our role. We know that regulation is no substitute for the energy and creativity of those on the ground.
There are four core elements to the new system: baseline conditions to protect student and public interests; targeted interventions to advance specified student and public interests; freedom for institutions to determine their own path; and the Office for Students leading discussion on best practice and the future of the sector.
Our main concern is to protect the interests of students. This is best done by avoiding infringements through the early identification of potential risks via a combination of effective monitoring and a trusted relationship between the OfS and providers.
Where information indicates a material risk that a provider is not meeting conditions, we shall consider intervening, having regard to the specific circumstances and likely impact.
Our second element is more targeted intervention. The baselines set out minimum, albeit strong, requirements. Targeted interventions are more specific in advancing change and are limited to areas where individual provider initiatives will be insufficient to advance important student and public interests.
Foremost of these is ensuring that all students who have the potential and desire to benefit from higher education have access to the full range of institutions and courses and are properly supported to fulfil their potential.
Within and beyond these parameters, institutions, not the regulator, are best placed to make decisions.
But it is a regulated market, as is appropriate for a sector delivering public and private goods and serving some vulnerable users. Baseline conditions, and targeted interventions, ensure that the benefits of choice, and responsiveness to change and new ideas, that come from a well-functioning market, are combined with appropriate interventions and protections for students and the public.
Much public money is invested in the system, and students incur significant debt to meet providers’ costs. It is, therefore, reasonable that providers give proper weight to matters such as student engagement, good governance and efficient use of resources and that they are held to account on how they do this.
Accountability is facilitated by transparency. Providers will be required to publish specified information on matters such as senior leadership remuneration to enable the OfS, students, staff and the wider community to engage on how valuable resources are expended.
Finally, the OfS will have a unique oversight across the sector, including nonregistered providers, and power to examine what works well (and not so well).
There are those who say that relying on outcome-focused baselines, and limiting direct intervention to certain public interest areas, is insufficient. They want a regulator to set the agenda for the sector and to protect it from change.
But the success of English higher education is not a result of state direction; it reflects the efforts and initiatives of our institutions and those who work in them. Regulation is an important adjunct to institutional decisionmaking, not a replacement.
Our new regulatory system seeks to tread a careful path, protecting vital student and public interests, while recognising that institutional autonomy is essential in delivering a good-quality, diverse, independent, responsive and vibrant sector.