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Worries over extent of OfS Covid powers

Consultation on temporary registration condition raises concerns over university autonomy

The OfS could impose fines of more than £500,000 if universities make any “unfair” offers to students, but there are questions over the potential “unintended consequences” of its proposals, with one expert describing them as “frightening”.

England’s regulator plans to set up a one-year condition of registration that would see universities liable to pay fines worth thousands of pounds if they “act in ways that undermine students’ interests or threaten the stability of England’s higher education sector” during the pandemic.

A consultation launched by the OfS on 4 May revealed that the condition could be extended beyond one year if it was “actively renewed”, while OfS boss Nicola Dandridge admitted some may worry the proposals “overstep the mark in curtailing universities’ autonomy”.

When considering a fine, the OfS would look at whether universities have stuck to Universities UK’s framework on fair admissions practices for 2020-21, agreed as part of the government’s so-called bailout package to help institutions through the coronavirus crisis.

According to the framework, universities must not make offers—including unconditional offers—that would “negatively impact student choice”, do anything to “place undue pressure on applicants” such as cash inducements to accept an offer, or fail to “strive to deliver the best outcome for the applicant” during the admissions process.

The OfS’s registration condition would stop universities “converting existing conditional offers to unconditional, lowering academic or language requirements for international applicants, offering incentives for students to accept offers, or engaging in aggressive marketing activity designed to attract students away from other choices”.

Institutions would also be fined if they make “misleading statements” about other universities, fail to show “high standards of good governance” in their decisions and failing to keep public promises to abide by voluntary codes of practice.

The consultation was launched after the government’s proposed coronavirus support package was published, which promised advanced tuition fee payments of around £2.6 billion and a student numbers cap for 2020-21 in exchange for a framework for fair admissions and the temporary registration condition.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said while some may have concerns that the proposals “overstep the mark in curtailing universities’ autonomy” during the coronavirus pandemic, “the need to protect students’ interests and the stability of the sector is more important” and the “strictly time-limited proposals are a necessary and proportionate means to do this”.

“This new condition would allow us to impose penalties that would cancel out any financial benefit to universities of acting inappropriately, significantly reducing the likelihood of such behaviour occurring in the first place but allowing us to intervene in a manner befitting the consequences if it did,” she added.

But Smita Jamdar, head of education and partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, warned the proposals in the consultation were “so much broader” than admissions and could mean the condition applied to institutions’ actions in other areas such as employment.

“It has got a huge potential for unintended consequences,” Jamdar told Research Professional News, adding it was a “quite frightening set of proposals when you put it all together”.

Jamdar also warned universities could expect fines to be handed out if the current proposals are carried out, and pointed out that breaches could be back-dated to 11 March. “It’s quite clear they are putting this in place and they intend to use it,” she said.

The consultation closes at 12pm on 26 May.