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OfS ‘fails to deliver’ risk-based regulation, peers hear

Image: UK Parliament [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

David Eastwood tells Lords committee that regulation has burdened both large and small providers

The Office for Students has failed to deliver a risk-based regulation system in England despite its aspiration to do so, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham has said.

David Eastwood, who was also formerly vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and served as chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England between 2006 and 2009, said the OfS was not regulating in a way that meant “low risk” providers encountered only “light touch” intervention.

Eastwood said that while Birmingham should be considered a low-risk provider, it “certainly didn’t feel like that” when he was still in charge just over a year ago.

“I think it’s a promise that was [made] to the sector that I don’t think has been fully delivered,” Eastwood told a Lords industry and regulators committee inquiry into the OfS.

“In the theology of regulation, risk-based regulation is an article of faith; it’s much more often professed than practised, and it’s genuinely hard to achieve,” he said.

Paper chain

Elsewhere in his evidence, Eastwood criticised a “very considerable increase” in the volume of data required by the OfS.

“There’s no doubt that that’s placed a considerable burden on institutions, particularly smaller institutions,” he said. 

Eastwood is a board member of the Royal Northern College of Music, a smaller provider that he said would feel that burden more than a larger institution such as Birmingham.

“I think, in some areas, these data requirements have been perceived by institutions as being disproportionate, not least because it’s unclear what the regulator is going to do with those data when the regulator has them,” he added.

Eastwood also criticised the regulator for a perceived failure to communicate effectively with higher education providers.

“One of the things that I think is substantially absent at the moment is a dialogue between the OfS as a regulator and the sector,” he said. “It’s almost as if they think that if they are in dialogue with the sector it somehow diminishes their regulatory authority.”

This was incorrect, Eastwood said, since better communication would help providers to understand “what the regulatory preoccupation might be, what the political imperative might be” for the OfS’s activities.

Discussing these things with universities “doesn’t in any sense compromise the authority of the regulator”, he concluded. “What it would do, I think, is it would enable, over time…the data and reporting requirements of the OfS to be diminished and better targeted.”

The OfS declined to comment on Eastwood’s statements.