AUA Annual Lecture 2018 | AUA Blog
Dr Andrew West, FAUA | Strategic Adviser to the AUA
AUA Annual Lecture 2018
Reflections on the first year of the Office for Students by Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive
A vast amount of regulatory and organisational water has flowed under the bridge since Nicola Dandridge addressed AUA’s Annual Conference as Chief Executive of Universities UK in Spring 2016. In November 2018 Nicola presented AUA’s twenty first Annual Lecture to a capacity audience at the Royal Society – now in her role as Chief Executive of the Office for Students (OfS). Nicola offered a thoughtful presentation reflecting on the first year of OfS, in particular addressing the question of ‘what sort of regulator’ OfS is setting out to be? (The answer to that question, by the way, is ‘a hybrid regulator’, of which more later).
Since OfS has only been formally ‘operational’ since April 2018, the organisation is continuing to develop its approach, with the OfS strategy on various issues – such as data – continuing to evolve. As many AUA members will be aware, the institutional ‘registration’ process has been a key focus during recent months – the first time such an exercise has been attempted in the higher education (HE) sector in England. Nicola noted various themes emerging as areas of interest or concern within this process, including student access arrangements and continuation rates, and financial viability at institutional level. The new requirement for ‘student protection plans’ has resulted in a mixed picture of practice – perhaps to be expected given the extent of diversity in the sector.
Future OfS priorities are likely to be shaped by some of the themes arising from the registration exercise, including the approach to student access and participation, and the role of the regulatory in improving information advice and guidance for prospective students. OfS also sees the need to build on student engagement within its operations, as it further develops the regulatory model.
Returning to the question of ‘what sort of regulator?’, Nicola presented some key features alongside a series of interesting dichotomies, reflecting a hybrid model:
• On the one hand OfS is a regulator of the whole HE sector in England, while on the other its interest is in regulating individual institutions
• As regulator, OfS has a role in encouraging diversity in the market for higher education; at the same time OfS is a market constrainer in relation to its concerns for quality and consumer protection
• Alongside regulating the sector OfS is also keen to work collaboratively with institutions on relevant policy themes – current work on student mental health exemplifying this activity
• While OfS does not see a role for itself in promoting the interests of the sector, Nicola was keen to emphasise that its regulatory activity was at heart concerned with sector ‘wellbeing’
In an explicit change from previous arrangements, regulation is firmly in the student interest rather than with an institutional focus. The new Regulatory Framework emphasises outcomes rather than process – a considerable shift in approach which Nicola freely admitted is leading to some uncertainty, as confidence in the revised model (both within the regulator and within the sector) develops over time.
As ever the Annual Lecture was a great opportunity for networking, with Nicola’s reflections generating plenty of questions and debate among attendees. We know from feedback that member communications and networking opportunities are valued elements within AUA’s membership offer. As a contributor to Newslink over many years, I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the final issue of the magazine, as we develop our communications into the future, drawing particularly on recent investment in IT and the improved member website.
Dr Andrew West is Strategic Adviser to the AUA. Formerly University Secretary at the University of Sheffield, he now provides consulting in the sector, with a focus on improving the student experience: www.drandrewwest.wordpress.com