Must do better: the Office for Students and the looming crisis facing higher education Contents

Chapter 5: Quality, standards, choice and competition

186.When performing its functions, the OfS is required by HERA to have regard to “the need to promote quality, and greater choice and opportunities for students, in the provision of higher education by English higher education providers”.219

187.The OfS is also required to have regard to:

“the need to encourage competition between English higher education providers in connection with the provision of higher education where that competition is in the interests of students and employers, while also having regard to the benefits for students and employers resulting from collaboration between such providers.”220

Quality, standards and the Designated Quality Body

188.The OfS “may assess, or make arrangements for the assessment” of the quality and standards of the education provided by all English higher education providers. This applies both to institutions that have applied to join the register of providers, and for determining whether institutions that are already on the register satisfy ongoing conditions. Where there are sector-recognised standards, any assessment of standards “must assess those standards against sector-recognised standards only”.221

189.In the White Paper that preceded HERA, Success as a knowledge economy, the Government said that it had “listened very carefully to those respondents” who had “called for co-regulation to be at the heart of the future quality system, as well as the many voices who have spoken positively” about the role of the QAA.222 Quality assurance was previously based around a combination of internal review of practices by universities themselves and external review by the QAA.223

Box 4: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)

The QAA is a charity that operates as an independent expert quality body for higher education across the UK. Its work is funded through its membership, which comprises over 300 higher education providers across the UK. Membership is voluntary in England, where over 98% of universities are members, and mandatory in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the QAA forms part of the regulatory framework.

The QAA oversees “a suite of UK-wide sector reference points which form an essential part of the quality assurance infrastructure of higher education institutions”, including the UK Quality Code for Higher Education. The Code is “a key reference point for the quality arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” but in England it is not a regulatory document.

Source: Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, ‘Our work in England’: https://www.qaa.ac.uk//en/about-us/our-main-areas-of-work/our-work-in-england and Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, ‘The Quality Code’: https://www.qaa.ac.uk/the-quality-code [accessed 2 June 2023]

190.In the White Paper, the Government set out its intention to allow the OfS to consult the sector as to whether there is an appropriate body in the sector capable of designing and operating quality assessments. The White Paper set out that the OfS “could not refuse to recommend a body provided that there was a suitable and capable one, even if it would prefer to carry out the work in house”.224

191.Provisions allowing for a body to be designated to undertake quality and standards assessments were subsequently included in HERA. In order to be designated, a body would have to meet a number of conditions, including being “capable of performing the assessment functions in an effective manner”, representing “a broad range” of providers, commanding the confidence of providers, and being independent of any particular provider.225 When a body has been designated to assess quality and standards, assessments of the standards of higher education provision “cease to be exercisable by the OfS”, although this does not apply to quality assessments. Where a body is not designated, these functions are undertaken by the OfS.226

192.The legislation allows the OfS to give the designated body “general directions” about the performance of its assessment functions. However, in giving such directions, the OfS must have regard to the need to protect the expertise of the designated body and its ability to make an impartial assessment of quality and standards.227

193.During the passage of the Act in Parliament, concerns were raised about how standards would be assessed, leading the Government to bring forward amendments aiming to clarify that the standards against which providers are assessed “are determined by, and command the confidence of, the higher education sector”. Amendments supported by the Government also attempted to clarify that “where a quality body is designated, it will have sole responsibility for the assessment of standards”, keeping “standards assessment at arm’s length from government”.228

194.In 2018, the QAA was designated as the Designated Quality Body (DQB) for England229 following a consultation in which over 98% of respondents stated their view that the QAA was capable of meeting all of the designation conditions.230 In a Designation Agreement agreed between the OfS and the QAA, the OfS welcomed the QAA’s designation “as it ensures that the QAA’s expertise as the sector-recognised expert body on quality and standards can be deployed in the new regulatory environment”.231

195.In July 2022, the QAA announced that it had notified the Education Secretary that it would “no longer consent” to being the DQB beyond 31 March 2023. The QAA explained that it decided not to continue in the role because the requirements made of it by the OfS’ regulatory approach “are not consistent with standard international practice for quality bodies, as reflected in the European Standards and Guidelines” (ESG).232

196.The QAA said that its work in the other nations of the UK and internationally “depends on the QAA’s registration by the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education” (EQAR). The QAA was temporarily suspended by EQAR, due to its non-compliance with the ESG. This in turn meant the QAA had to leave its role as the DQB in England in order to continue its work in other jurisdictions. The QAA explained that “both the European Register and the European Higher Education Area are separate from the European Union”, meaning the UK’s commitment to them is not impacted by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.233

197.The QAA suggested that areas of non-compliance with ESG standards included not being able to publish all DQB review reports or involve students in DQB reviews.234 Vicki Stott, their Chief Executive, indicated that EQAR also held a “longer-term worry about cyclical review”.235 Through a cyclical or periodic review process, a body ensures that it has reviewed the activities of each provider at least once across a particular period of time. However, the OfS takes a risk-based approach to reviewing quality, meaning that rather than reviewing the activities of all providers, it focuses on those that pose the greatest risk.236

198.The OfS has a differing view of the reasons for the QAA’s departure as the DQB. HERA requires the OfS to send the Secretary of State a triennial report on how the designated body has performed its assessment functions.237 In January 2023, the OfS published a summary of its triennial report on the performance of the QAA as the DQB, in which it argued that the QAA “has not performed, and is unlikely in future to perform, the assessment functions such that quality and standards will be effectively assessed for higher education providers in England”. The OfS set out its view that “the designation of the QAA is no longer appropriate and the OfS supports the QAA’s request to have its designation removed”.238

199.On 30 March 2023, the Government announced the de-designation of the QAA as the DQB, which means that the relevant statutory functions revert to the OfS.239 This followed a consultation in which a majority of respondents disagreed with de-designation.240

200.On 4 April 2023, the OfS’ Head of Quality and Standards, Nick Holland, published a blog post setting out the OfS’ “next steps” in assessing quality and standards. The blog set out that the OfS had “already recruited more than 70 academics to a pool of assessors” to provide expert academic judgement and is “now increasing the size of this pool” as it takes over assessment activities from the QAA. The blog argued that “there are not significant differences between the old and new arrangements”, as there are “no changes to the quality requirements providers will be tested against”.241

Quality of the QAA’s work and response to OfS criticism

201.The OfS raised several issues with the QAA’s performance as the DQB in its triennial report, including that reports provided by the DQB were “not fit for purpose because they do not meet the OfS’ requirements for use in regulatory decisions”. The OfS argued that the QAA’s proposals for how to assess quality and standards in relation to new conditions of registration would not “enable the OfS to make reliable and robust regulatory decisions”. It also suggested that there was a conflict of interests between the QAA’s role as a membership organisation and the regulatory role it would have as the DQB.242

202.Vanessa Wilson of University Alliance said that to the sector, “it is very clear what the solution is”, arguing that “the QAA is expert in this area and should be the DQB”. She emphasised that “no other body at the moment could fulfil that role, which is frustrating because it is an important one”, noting that quality is “inherent” in the UK having a “world-leading higher education system”.243

203.A large number of written submissions we received also expressed support for the QAA’s expertise and approach, including the University of Huddersfield, which said that the QAA has the “significant and long-standing confidence of the sector”.244 University Alliance stressed that “it took over two decades for the QAA to build a sophisticated, world-renowned quality assurance infrastructure … that has global influence and reach”.245

204.Anthony McClaran, now of GuildHE and formerly Chief Executive of the QAA, said that the situation in relation to conflicts of interest is “manageable” and “inherent” in higher education. He noted similar issues during his time at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which were managed “very carefully through separation of duties, separation of powers”.246

205.Vicki Stott said that the OfS’ view of the QAA’s work is “an anomaly” and “at odds with other stakeholders for whom we do work, who have expressed their confidence in us”. Her colleague Professor Simon Gaskell said that when the OfS was set up, “it was very much feeling its way”, meaning that “there was some toing and froing about what exactly the OfS needed” from the QAA. He said “there is no dispute that we did not get that exactly right from the outset”. However, he suggested that there were examples where the OfS “would change its mind about what it needed”, meaning “it was sometimes difficult to keep up with OfS thinking”.247

206.Prof Gaskell said that the OfS’ triennial report included “errors of fact and unjustified implications”. Vicki Stott said that even after the report, the OfS continued to commission the QAA to conduct assessments of providers. After the QAA announced its decision to demit the role (but before this took effect), they were “commissioned for a higher volume of assessments than we had ever been commissioned for before”. She emphasised that the OfS has used DQB reports to make regulatory decisions, including “as recently as a fortnight” before the evidence session on 25 April 2023.248

207.Vicki Stott argued that the QAA does “not think that there is a conflict” between its membership model and its DQB operations. She explained that the QAA had “very strict firewalls and ethical barriers” which it was planning to strengthen “purely in order to reassure the OfS”. She suggested that there are several precedents for bodies to hold both membership and regulatory functions, such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the General Medical Council, and argued that the QAA’s membership work concerned “quality enhancement work” that “says nothing about compliance with the OfS’ regulatory framework”.249

208.Lord Wharton said that the OfS “cannot see a credible route for the QAA to return” to the DQB role, arguing that across a four-year period, “we could not use around two-thirds of the QAA’s reports the first time they were submitted”. He said that “it is not credible to suggest that we would concoct significant concerns about the work where none have existed”, noting that the QAA “has acknowledged to us at various points that there have been issues with its work.250

209.Lord Wharton also argued that “it is not credible for a body to operate in the interests of paying members and make judgements to inform potentially high-stakes regulatory decisions about those same providers”. He acknowledged the sector’s “strong preference” for a designated body but explained that, while HERA allows for a DQB, it does not require one.251

210.In supplementary written evidence, the QAA indicated that in the most recent year of DQB activity, between April 2022 and March 2023, the QAA only received feedback in relation to 3% of its reports. The QAA reiterated that the OfS has used DQB reports to make regulatory decisions, “often citing the reports directly”.252

Independence and differences in approach between QAA and OfS

211.Lord Johnson, the former Minister for Universities, said that “it is not surprising” that the current situation has arisen, as the QAA, though “impressive”, is “a legacy organisation”. He said that the QAA “embodies the ethos of co-regulation, where the sector manages quality and standards … and government funds the sector and does not ask too many questions”. He argued that this spirit “clearly will not survive long in an environment where an active market regulator is looking out for the student and taxpayer interest”.253

212.Charles Clarke, the former Secretary of State for Education, argued in favour of co-regulation, suggesting that without it, either the Government or the regulator will be telling universities how they have to be run. He suggested that this would be “dangerous”, as “there is no way that a major university is able simply to accept diktats”.254

213.Sir David Eastwood, formerly of HEFCE, explained that in the 1990s, the quality body was initially established within the then-regulator but was “then spun out into the QAA, precisely because the quality assurance function is much more appropriately delivered by an arm’s-length body”.255

214.Alex Proudfoot of Independent Higher Education said that the value UK degrees have attained is “not from government diktat”, but from “the practice, history and excellence of UK institutions”. He argued that it is “entirely appropriate that a sector-owned, co-regulatory quality body looks at those standards and assesses that value”.256

215.The University of Westminster said that it is “unclear if sector standards have been maintained” because the OfS is “only interested in a metric driven approach” and has made clear that the Quality Code did not align with its new approach to student outcomes.257 The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) also expressed concern that the OfS has decided to “stop using the previously UK-wide core reference documents which defined the quality and standards of education”, such as the Quality Code for Higher Education.258

216.Vicki Stott acknowledged that “the intent of HERA is that the regulator should set expectations for quality”. However, she argued that the OfS “has gone beyond that in becoming overly prescriptive about the way that it manages” the DQB.259

217.The QAA’s written submission argued that the OfS’ approach “went beyond its powers” to provide general directions to the DQB and failed to protect the QAA’s expertise and its ability to make impartial assessments. It provided the example of an OfS direction on how the DQB should conduct standards assessments in early 2022 which was “highly specific and restrictive”, setting out the precise method of assessment, the maximum amount of time it should take, limitations on the evidence to be considered and requirements on how assessors should be trained.260

218.For the OfS, Susan Lapworth argued that the DQB’s assessments “have to be done in a way that fits properly and securely within” the regulatory framework, which is why HERA gives the OfS the ability “to issue directions about how the DQB works”. She suggested that “this dynamic is not well understood in the sector”, which does not understand “the absolute importance of the QAA’s work fitting in the wider hole” of the OfS’ regulatory framework.261

International standards and cyclical review

219.We received substantial written evidence raising concerns about England’s departure from international standards on quality and the resulting risks to the sector’s international reputation, including from the Russell Group, which argued that ESG standards have “been a model of good practice”. The Group encouraged the OfS and the DfE “to work to address issues of non-compliance with the ESG” and to reflect the importance of alignment when considering long-term arrangements for the DQB.262

220.University Alliance said that divergence “puts the sector’s global reputation for quality at risk”.263 The Engineering Professors’ Council and the Engineering Council argued that this is a “very real example of where the OfS has negatively impacted the HE market”.264

221.Rachel Hewitt of MillionPlus explained that the departure from international standards “will now leave England operating in a different way from the devolved nations, which is challenging”, especially as internationally, the higher education system “is often seen as UK-wide”,265 a point reiterated by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.266

222.Vicki Stott emphasised that the QAA cares about international standards “because they align with our principles and the way that we believe quality and standards are monitored in best practice. It is not simply blind adherence to a bureaucratic process.”267

223.Vicki Stott argued that England’s departure from international standards made it hard to open overseas campuses and attract international students sponsored by foreign governments, because those governments were “concerned that they could not see a recent enough quality report on the individual provider” and are “worried that there is no oversight”.268

224.Prof Gaskell said that the QAA “would be very willing to take on” the DQB role again if the principles of HERA and international standards were followed clearly. He argued that there is compatibility between the OfS’ approach and international guidelines, as “if you take a risk-based approach, clearly there is a need for periodic assessment of what the risk is”. However, he stressed that while the required reset is “minor in difficulty”, it is “major with respect to the philosophy involved”.269

225.Vicki Stott explained that the OfS’ concerns around publishing all DQB reports related to the potential for “legal pushback” if reports contained “negative judgements or negative opinions” about providers. She stressed that providers had the opportunity to fact-check and appeal judgements, including through judicial review. She stressed that nobody took a DQB report to judicial review during the QAA’s time in the role and there were only “a very small number” of appeals, and that this was therefore no reason not to publish reports.270

226.Lord Wharton stressed that the OfS cares “very much about the international reputation of the sector” but argued that this is “based on excellent teaching and research”, and not on “any particular quality assurance process”.271

227.Susan Lapworth said that there is a mismatch between “the European expectations” and what HERA requires of the OfS, arguing that “the European approach does not properly accommodate a risk-based system” through its requirement for cyclical review. She argued that “the European model needs modernising and updating”, adding that the OfS has written to EQAR on some of those points.272

228.Following our evidence session with representatives of the OfS, the QAA provided us with an additional written submission. The QAA argued that “it is possible, within a risk-based system, to have a cyclical review element that is light on burden, meets the requirements of the European Standards and Guidelines … and adds value for providers”. The QAA said that to its knowledge, the OfS has “never undertaken any work to attempt to reconcile the two systems”.273

OfS’ capacity to take on quality and standards assessments

229.A large number of submissions raised concerns about the OfS taking on the DQB role, including the Cathedrals Group of Universities, which suggested that “as clearly intended by HERA, the DQB should be independent, and it is clearly inappropriate for the OfS to undertake this role”.274 Lord Johnson said that it “would not be my long-term wish for the OfS to do this itself”, in order to “preserve institutional autonomy”.275 Professor Neal Juster of the University of Lincoln said that he would “argue very strongly” that the DQB function should not remain with the OfS as it is “important that the quality system is separate from the regulator”.

230.Vivienne Stern of Universities UK emphasised that “it is important to keep a really clear separation between the Government of the day and what is taught in universities”. She argued that currently, “there is an absence of trust”, leading to concerns that judgments will be “coloured by factors that would not be accepted as legitimate”. However, she expected this trust to improve in the future.276

231.The Russell Group suggested that after a 12-month interim period, the OfS should “publish a report on its performance as the DQB and present this” to the DfE.277 This suggestion was echoed by Universities UK, who called for a review to consider value for money, effectiveness and the potential for future efficiencies, while noting that “an independent DQB remains most appropriate for external quality assurance”.278

232.Sir David Eastwood said that the OfS “does not have the capability” to undertake quality assurance assessments.279 Vicki Stott said that “there may well be a capability issue in the short term simply in resource”.280
Prof Gaskell said that the “surge of requests” from the OfS for the DQB to conduct reviews after the QAA announced its decision to leave the DQB role suggested “nervousness about taking the function in-house”.281 The Engineering College of Technology, which is preparing an application for Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs) in England, suggested that its application is likely to stall because the OfS has confirmed that it does not have “the systems in place or the personnel to assess existing and new DAPs applications”.282

233.Prof Gaskell explained that the QAA has “suspected that the objective, at least on the part of some at the OfS, has been to prefer to bring the function in-house … because they would feel a greater level of control”. He noted that this is allowed for by HERA “if no independent body is in a position to undertake it” but argued that “there is an independent body in a position to take it on” in the shape of the QAA.283

234.Susan Lapworth acknowledged that “lots of the conversation in Parliament was framed with an assumption” that the QAA would take on the DQB role, but “HERA is clear that there does not have to be a DQB”. She argued that the OfS taking on the role “is not unusual in other regulated sectors”, adding that “in lots of ways, it makes it easier for us to practically operate”.284

235.The Minister said that he is “completely open-minded as to whether it is an independent body or is done by the OfS”, as “both could do it well”. He said that he thinks “that the OfS can do this job perfectly well” and that “it is likely to remain in the OfS unless an independent body comes forward that the OfS feels it can work with”. He explained that he did not think any university had asked “for the OfS to become a cyclical regulator” and argued that he had “not seen any evidence that we are diverging in our standards”.285

236.We are concerned by England’s recent shift away from European quality standards, to the point that the QAA was temporarily suspended from the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education. Given the financial importance of overseas students to higher education institutions, it is crucial to maintain the international reputation of the sector. However, the regulatory approach in England has unnecessarily raised questions about the quality of higher education provision, including by making it unclear whether quality and standards are being regularly checked.

237.When the HERA was passed, it was expected that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) would fulfil the Designated Quality Body (DQB) role. It is understandable that the OfS and the QAA, which are different bodies in style and philosophy, would have some issues as they adapted to the new framework.

238.The OfS appears to have taken little responsibility for resolving these issues, despite frequent changes to what it expected to receive from DQB reports. While the OfS has the power to give the DQB general directions, it seems to have given very specific directions with little regard to the expertise and impartiality of the DQB. It is disappointing that the OfS apparently views its own convenience and control as more important than preserving independent oversight of quality and standards. Nor is it clear why the OfS acted in the way that it did.

239.It is not clear whether the OfS has or will be able to develop the capability to take on the DQB role smoothly. It is clear, however, that the OfS does not have the confidence of the sector in providing an impartial assessment of quality and standards. The current situation has the potential to be both impractical and a threat to academic independence.

240.The QAA has the confidence of providers and a strong international reputation. By contrast, the OfS’ approach to quality has fallen out of alignment with international standards and called into question the international reputation of the sector. However, the circumstances of the QAA’s de-designation remain unclear and contested, and the difficulties we faced in getting a clear account of these issues is a problem in and of itself.

241.The OfS should work urgently to align its framework for quality with international standards, including by publishing all assessment reports and including students on assessment teams. The OfS should explore the extent to which its own assessment of risks as part of its risk-based framework and its broader regulatory activity can count as cyclical review.

242.The OfS should make the necessary adjustments to its framework to comply with international standards and respect the DQB’s need to make impartial assessments of quality and standards, with a view to allowing the QAA or another arms-length body to perform the role.

243.The OfS should provide a transparent estimate of the additional costs to be incurred by taking on the DQB role and report annually thereafter on the cost and effectiveness of its performance of the role.

Competition, choice and new entrants

New entrants

244.Greater competition and choice was a key priority of the Government during the passage of HERA. In the White Paper that preceded HERA, then Minister for Universities Lord Johnson286 outlined that the Government would “make it quicker and easier for new high quality challenger institutions to enter the market and award their own degrees”.287

245.At the time, Lord Johnson said that the “new Office for Students will put competition and choice at the heart of sector regulation”. The White Paper argued that competition would incentivise providers “to raise their game” and would “help drive up teaching standards overall; enhance the life chances of students; drive economic growth; and be a catalyst for social mobility”.288

246.Accordingly, HERA requires that in performing its functions, the OfS must have regard to the need to promote “greater choice and opportunities for students” and to “encourage competition between English higher education providers”. It also gives the OfS the power to register providers and to authorise them to grant degrees.289 In 2023, 12 new providers have been added to the OfS Register, the majority offering business courses in large cities.290

247.During our inquiry, Lord Johnson told us that this is the area where he is “most critical” of the OfS, arguing that it has “ignored the duties that Parliament gave it to promote competition and choice”. He said that there have been “some great examples of new providers coming in” but suggested that they “have really struggled with the combination of processes” in the OfS and the QAA to receive degree awarding powers, which have involved “unbelievable bureaucracy and foot-dragging”.291

248.In particular, Lord Johnson expressed frustration with the OfS’ “failure to tackle the problems” with the validation system, whereby new providers can enter the system by being validated by an existing, established provider. Lord Johnson argued that this approach “is an inherent brake on innovation and competition”. He called for the OfS to “address this seriously”.292

249.Alex Proudfoot also criticised the validation system, suggesting that to find a validator, “you would normally have to know someone” and it is “very much about your own network”. He argued that there is “no transparency around the process or the costs”, suggesting that this area of regulation “has not received the attention it needs”.293

250.Alex Proudfoot said that enabling new providers is “a crucial piece” of the vision of HERA “that has not borne necessary fruit”. He argued that the application process is “not transparent enough and it is too slow”, explaining that some institutions “have been waiting for six months for an acknowledgement of their inquiry”. He argued that “that level of efficiency is not really good enough”.294

251.Dame Nicola Dandridge, former Chief Executive of the OfS, said that there have been “some very good … and very welcome” new entrants but emphasised “the reality … that it is very difficult to set up a new university or higher education provider, and perhaps it was a bit overoptimistic to expect that there should be large numbers of new high-quality providers”.295

252.Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell of the University of Manchester questioned “how attractive it is to be a new provider”, explaining that she had spoken to someone interested in starting a new university, and “once we had talked through the financial model of universities, the regulations and all the other things we had to do, he decided not to do it.”296

253.Prof Gaskell said that “the strictures placed on new providers should exactly parallel the standards that are applied across the board”, explaining that a new provider will have “less history, if any, to point to as evidence of the quality and standards in its provision, in comparison with established universities”.297

254.Vicki Stott explained that the criteria for DQB assessments “were set by the OfS”, and in the case of degree awarding powers assessments providers had to “submit evidence for 58 criteria”. She explained that the regulatory framework “allows providers complete autonomy in deciding” how they satisfy the criteria, which means “there is no sense of what providers need to submit”.298

255.Susan Lapworth said that there are “around 415 registered providers now” and “about 50 of those are what we call new providers”. She emphasised the need to balance “easing the route for good providers … with making sure that we are still rigorous in our assessment”. She explained that the OfS revised its guidance for registration in late 2022 to be “clearer for providers about what the process entails”. This sets out the OfS’ view that “it should take around eight to ten months for registration for a provider that is ready to go and can provide everything that we need”.299

256.The Minister said that he wants “more new entrants” and emphasised that when the LLE300 is in place, “there will be a lot more new providers wanting to offer flexible and modular learning”.301 However, in December 2022, the DfE’s memorandum on post-legislative scrutiny of HERA indicated that “it is not currently government policy to actively seek to increase the numbers of HE providers”.302

257.It is welcome that the OfS has provided new guidance to new entrants on its registration process. After a suitable period, the OfS should review the impact of this guidance in encouraging new entrants into the sector, with the aim of streamlining the process and increasing innovation in provision, set against realistic targets. In a similar vein, the OfS should produce greater guidance on validation, outlining the likely requirements, costs and timescales of the process.

Diversity of provision

258.Provided the relevant legislation is passed, the Government’s intention is that from 2025, the current systems for student finance will be replaced by the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE). The LLE will provide all new learners with a tuition fee loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use up to the age of 60. The LLE is intended to be used flexibly for full-time or part-time study of modules or full qualifications in colleges or universities. 303

259.Announcing the move, the DfE described the LLE as “like a flexi-travel card”, allowing people “to jump on and off their learning, as opposed to having a ticket with a single destination”.304 The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, which introduces the LLE, is currently passing through Parliament. It has passed its initial Commons stages and, at the time of writing, is awaiting third reading in the House of Lords.305

260.Charles Clarke suggested that “most universities have been very inflexible in creating their course structures in such a way that people can join at various points throughout their lives”. He argued that “the modern world requires much more flexible and effective universities”.306

261.UCAS projects that “there could be up to a million HE applicants in a single year by 2030, up from almost three quarters of a million today”.307 Alex Proudfoot said that “the biggest challenge of our time for the sector is how we meet that demand”. He argued that this “will not all be a traditional university degree programme” and will involve “different types of students who have different time commitments, different responsibilities, different passions and different ways of learning”, which is “really exciting”.308

262.However, Alex Proudfoot did not feel that “the Government or the OfS have grappled with that challenge, which is massive”. In particular, he argued that “none of the current ways” in which the OfS measures quality and outcomes “will work for LLE”. Rachel Hewitt agreed, adding that “sometimes, the way that regulation operates can slightly stifle” diversity of provision.309

263.The Cathedrals Group of Universities agreed that the OfS’ value for money metrics “simply will not fit the learning pathways which will be encouraged and supported” by the LLE, “since they are based on the model of three years’ continuous undergraduate education”, a point also raised by other witnesses.310

264.Lord Wharton said that the LLE “will be a significant change for the sector” and explained that “the OfS will have an important role in delivering it”.311 The Minister said that the LLE “will be transformative because we are moving to flexible and modular learning” and “there will be a lot more new providers” wanting to offer that. He emphasised that “we need a diverse offering” and said that “the obsession should be about skills and jobs” rather than universities.312

265.We welcome the proposed introduction of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. However, there are concerns that the OfS’ approach to regulation may stifle innovation and the prospects for a greater diversity of provision. It is also unclear whether the OfS is prepared for this substantial new role.

266.As it takes on its role in relation to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, the OfS will need to review whether its approach to assessing student outcomes is flexible enough to accurately cover short courses and diverse forms of provision without overly burdening providers.


219 Higher Education and Research Act 2017, section 2

220 Ibid., section 2

221 Ibid., section 23

222 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, ‘Success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice’ (16 May 2016): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-success-as-a-knowledge-economy-white-paper [accessed 2 June 2023]

223 House of Commons Library, ‘Higher education in the UK: Systems, policy approaches, and challenges’, Research Briefing CBP 9640, April 2023

224 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice (16 May 2016): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-success-as-a-knowledge-economy-white-paper [accessed 2 June 2023]

225 Higher Education and Research Act 2017, schedule 4

227 Ibid., schedule 4

228 HL Deb, 6 March 2017, col 1164

229 Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, ‘Our work in England’: https://www.qaa.ac.uk//en/about-us/our-main-areas-of-work/our-work-in-england [accessed 2 June 2023]

230 DfE, Designation of a body to perform the assessment functions for higher education in England: Government consultation response (January 2018): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/677339/Designation_of_a_body_to_perform_the_assessment_functions_for_higher_edu....pdf [accessed 2 June 2023]

231 OfS and Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Designation Agreement between the Office for Students and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (July 2018): https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/85c4bd0e-25d3-4a3b-ba71-c5ec36365f03/dqb-designation-agreement-oct-2019.pdf [accessed 2 June 2023]

232 Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, ‘QAA demits DQB status to focus on sector and students in England’ (20 July 2022): https://www.qaa.ac.uk/news-events/news/qaa-demits-dqb-status-to-focus-on-sector-and-students-in-england [accessed 5 June 2023]

233 Ibid.

234 Ibid.

235 Q 87 (Vicki Stott)

236 Written evidence from the OfS (WOS0001)

237 Higher Education and Research Act 2017, schedule 4

238 OfS, Summary of the OfS’ triennial report on the performance of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education as the designated quality body (January 2023): https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/284a26f6-4207-45db-a58f-b26258c1c930/summary-of-the-triennial-report-on-the-performance-of-the-designated-quality-body.pdf [accessed 5 June 2023]

239 HC Deb, 30 March 2023, HCWS695

240 DfE, De-designation of QAA as the designated quality body in England: government response (30 March 2023): https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/de-designation-of-qaa-as-the-designated-quality-body-in-england [accessed 5 June 2023]

241 OfS, ‘Assessing quality and standards: next steps’ (April 2023): https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/blog/assessing-quality-and-standards-next-steps/ [accessed 5 June 2023]

242 OfS, Summary of the OfS’ triennial report on the performance of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education as the designated quality body (January 2023): https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/284a26f6-4207-45db-a58f-b26258c1c930/summary-of-the-triennial-report-on-the-performance-of-the-designated-quality-body.pdf [accessed 5 June 2023]

243 Q 51 (Vanessa Wilson)

244 Written evidence from the Academic Registrars Council (WOS0014), University of Huddersfield (WOS0019), Brunel University (WOS0021), Cathedrals Group of Universities (WOS0022), Oxford Brookes University (WOS0023), University of Southampton (WOS0025), University of Oxford (WOS0029), Engineering Institute of Technology (WOS0031), University of Suffolk (WOS0036) and University of Bolton (WOS0045)

245 Written evidence from University Alliance (WOS0040)

246 Q 84 (Anthony McClaran)

247 QQ 87–88 (Vicki Stott)

248 Q 87 (Vicki Stott)

249 Q 89 (Vicki Stott)

250 Q 126 (Lord Wharton)

251 Ibid.

252 Supplementary written evidence from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (WOS0068)

253 25 (Lord Johnson of Marylebone)

254 Q 25 (Rt Hon Charles Clarke)

255 Q 35 (Sir David Eastwood)

256 Q 58 (Alex Proudfoot)

257 Written evidence from the University of Westminster (WOS0007)

258 Written evidence from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (WOS0017)

259 Q 92 (Vicki Stott)

260 Written evidence from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (WOS0024)

261 Q 126 (Susan Lapworth)

262 Written evidence from the Russell Group (WOS0016), University of Westminster (WOS0007), Academic Registrars Council (WOS0014), Cathedrals Group of Universities (WOS0022), University of Southampton (WOS0025), Manchester Metropolitan University (WOS0032), Universities UK (WOS0034), GuildHE (WOS0035), University of Suffolk (WOS0036), University Alliance (WOS0040), Engineering Professors’ Council and Engineering Council (WOS0048) and Imperial College London (WOS0059)

263 Written evidence from University Alliance (WOS0040)

264 Written evidence from the Engineering Professors’ Council and Engineering Council (WOS0048)

265 Q 58 (Rachel Hewitt)

266 Written evidence from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (WOS0017)

267 Q 87 (Vicki Stott)

268 Q 90 (Vicki Stott)

269 QQ 91–92 (Professor Gaskell)

270 Q 87 (Vicki Stott)

271 Q 125 (Lord Wharton of Yarm)

272 Q 125 (Susan Lapworth)

273 Supplementary written evidence from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (WOS0068)

274 Written evidence from the Academic Registrars Council (WOS0014), National Union of Students (WOS0015), Brunel University (WOS0021), Cathedrals Group of Universities (WOS0022), Oxford Brookes University (WOS0023), University of Southampton (WOS0025), University of Plymouth (WOS0026), London Higher (WOS0028), University of Oxford (WOS0029), Association of School and College Leaders (WOS0030), Engineering Institute of Technology (WOS0031), Manchester Metropolitan University (WOS0032), Universities UK (WOS0034), GuildHE (WOS0035), University of Suffolk (WOS0036), Dr David Hitchcock, Dr Sylvia De Mars and Dr Emma Kennedy (WOS0038), University Alliance (WOS0040), UCISA (WOS0041), MillionPlus (WOS0042), Professor James Tooley (WOS0046) and Independent Higher Education (WOS0065)

275 Q 25 (Lord Johnson of Marylebone)

276 Q 51 (Vivienne Stern)

277 Written evidence from the Russell Group of Universities (WOS0016)

278 Written evidence from Universities UK (WOS0034)

279 Q 35 (Sir David Eastwood)

280 Q 91 (Vicki Stott)

281 Q 91 (Professor Gaskell)

282 Written evidence from the Engineering College of Technology (WOS0031)

283 Q 91 (Professor Gaskell)

284 Q 126 (Susan Lapworth)

285 Q 148 (Robert Halfon MP)

286 At the time, Rt Hon Jo Johnson MP.

287 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Success as a knowledge economy: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice (16 May 2016): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-success-as-a-knowledge-economy-white-paper [accessed 14 June 2023]

288 Ibid.

289 Higher Education and Research Act 2017, section 2, section 3 and section 42

291 21 (Lord Johnson of Marylebone)

292 Ibid.

293 Q 55 (Alex Proudfoot)

294 Ibid.

295 QQ 4 and 10 (Sir Michael Barber, Dame Nicola Dandridge)

296 Q 41 (Dame Nancy Rothwell)

297 Q 93 (Professor Simon Gaskell)

298 Q 93 (Vicki Stott)

299 Q 118 (Susan Lapworth)

300 See para 256.

301 Q 144 (Robert Halfon MP)

302 DfE, Memorandum to the Education Select Committee: Post-legislative scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (December 2022): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1124146/Post-legislative_scrutiny_HERA_2017_print_version.pdf

303 House of Commons Library, ‘The Lifelong Loan Entitlement’, Research Briefing CBP 9756, April 2023

304 DfE, ‘Student finance to be radically transformed from 2025’ (7 March 2023): https://www.gov.uk/government/news/student-finance-to-be-radically-transformed-from-2025

306 Q 21 (Rt Hon Charles Clarke)

307 Written evidence from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (WOS0063)

308 QQ 55 and 59 (Alex Proudfoot)

309 QQ 55 and 59–60 (Rachel Hewitt)

310 Written evidence from the Cathedrals Group of Universities (WOS0022), London Higher (WOS0028), Universities UK (WOS0034), MillionPlus (WOS0042)

311 Q 118 (Lord Wharton)

312 QQ 144 and 149 (Minister Halfon)




© Parliamentary copyright 2023