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Interview: John Blake

Image: Office for Students

Harriet Swain talks regulation with the Office for Students’ director for fair access and participation

Five minutes into our interview with John Blake, who oversees participation and fair access at the Office for Students, an overhead tannoy crackles into life in the corner of the room.

“Please can colleagues make their way down to the canteen in Sanctuary Buildings,” it announced, “for the all-staff meeting with the secretary of state, hosted by the permanent secretary.”

Blake pointed out quickly that it didn’t apply to him, joking that he had orchestrated the intervention to demonstrate just how independent the OfS is.

But given the eyebrows raised at the regulator’s decision to move from its original Chancery Lane London home to the same building as the Department for Education, the timing was unfortunate.

Moving into the DfE offices was to do with concerns about saving public money, according to an OfS spokesman—and consciousness that the OfS is operating at a time of straitened higher education finances run through much of Blake’s conversation.

The OfS’s work around access and participation recognises that “we are no longer in an age in which the sector can expect significant increases in domestic income”, he said.

A key part of this work since Blake’s arrival has centred on asking providers to update their access and participation plans to acknowledge a new risk register that sets out the various risks to access experienced by different groups of students, and to incorporate his priority for them to work more closely with schools.

Back to schools

Blake’s own background is very much schools-focused: he taught history at a number of schools around London, worked for the Harris Federation academies trust and, after a stint as head of education and social reform at the think tank Policy Exchange, joined Now Teach, followed by the schools network Ark.

In March, providers were told they would have longer to develop their updated plans, with just a handful expected to submit this summer and most by spring or summer next year. Blake said around a dozen had already submitted plans, with around 40 expected altogether in the first wave. They will receive more one-to-one attention and will inform the OfS’s response to future submissions.

While Blake said it was too early to identify patterns in the plans submitted so far, they were suggesting that although existing partnerships with the third sector appeared to be growing, the same was not true of the number of new partnerships.

He is determined that decisions made around improving access should be based on evidence. “The evidential base isn’t nearly strong enough given the amount of money put into it, given how important it is,” he said.

His concern, he said, is not only for students but for the staff carrying out this work who want reassurance that all their hard work is making a difference.

Saying that more research is needed is always likely to garner approval in academic circles, but the idea that much of the work done so far has been based on flimsy evidence might not go down so well with Blake’s predecessors in the job.

Money issues

Meanwhile, could all this stress on collecting data be a way of avoiding the real problem—money, or a lack of it?

“Part of the point of the evaluation is that money is a constraining factor in lots of ways, but it isn’t necessarily the only one, and often, given the lack of evidence for some of these activities, it’s not clear that it is money that’s the problem,” Blake said.

But it can’t help that access budgets are having to do more (including more evaluation) with less. Funding plans for 2023-24, published in June, showed that budgets for student premiums for full and part-time undergraduates, the disabled students’ premium and the premium for student transitions and mental health, as well as the budget for Uni Connect, would all be maintained in cash terms, which, with inflation, amounts to a cut. The budget for the Uni Connect outreach programme has already been halved over the past three years.

Blake says he worked in schools in the early 2000s at a time of continuously upward budgets and that improvement didn’t track the spend then.

What about student maintenance support? Both Universities UK and the Russell Group have called for a review of the support available because of the challenges for disadvantaged students of maintenance loans failing to keep up with inflation.

Again, Blake, who pointed out that the OfS doesn’t control maintenance grants, wants to see the evidence first. “I can see a valid line of reasoning from the problem they’ve identified to the solution they think will work, but what is the evidence base that that is the right solution?”

Other factors could be affecting these students, he suggests, such as pressures on accommodation, pastoral systems, and access to academic resources. “Suggesting that one single change would solve those problems is not right.” Although, surely, no mission group has suggested that maintenance support is the only issue.

Paying fines

Then there is the uncomfortable fact that many of the providers performing worst on access are those performing best in terms of output.

Blake has run out of patience with the argument from some high-tariff providers that they are not taking applicants from diverse backgrounds because too few achieve high enough grades.

“If you can’t diversify your intake because you don’t think they’ve got the skills or knowledge necessary, what are you doing to ensure that that’s corrected?” he asks.

The OfS has threatened to fine institutions that fail to do enough on access. Is that really likely—especially when some of the worst culprits are the most prestigious?

He said fines were not his preference because the problem is not that people are failing to take equality issues seriously but that they are failing to match actions with words.

He draws a distinction with the work the OfS is doing on quality. There, it is undertaking inspections and threatening financial penalties because “we face a sector that is still resistant to the idea that there is a genuine quality problem, and I think we need to be clear that there is and that there are genuine things they need to do about it”. Even here, though, no one has been fined yet.

Questions of quality

This idea that providers aren’t taking the idea of quality seriously enough lies behind the government’s recent announcement that it wants to cap the number of students on “low quality” courses—to be defined by the OfS and by metrics on continuation and employment after graduation.

But given how different universities are in terms of their missions and the kinds of students they serve—something that has struck Blake, particularly in comparison with schools, since coming to the job—no one has so far seemed keen to spell out which these courses are.

Blake says more will need to be done between universities in sharing best practice, and here again he suggests they can learn from schools, particularly in discussions around the curriculum and the purpose of assessment. He suggests that teachers in higher education will have to engage more in future in thinking through choices around what they are teaching and how they are assessing it.

Blake grew up in Basingstoke and was the first in his family to go to university—Oxford, where he was president of the students’ union. He ended up as a teacher, he said, because it was a professional job that he understood.

His concern is not so much for the straight A kids like him, or those disadvantaged enough to have access to schemes designed to help them, but for those who do OK at school and rely mainly on luck to find a course and then a career in which they can succeed, without much support.

Schools, employers and higher education all need to work on improving information and chances for this group of students, he suggests, “ensuring the connective tissue of our education and skills sector is stronger”.

Meet the students

Part of this surely is finding out from students what kind of support they need. The OfS has been criticised, including by its own student panel members, for failing here.

Research Professional News found that the OfS chair and chief executive had only visited a handful of institutions on non-essential business, but Blake said he gets out a lot, including speaking to students without university management being there.

One of the problems is that any student keen to talk to someone from the regulator is “unusual”, he said. It was therefore important to access the views of other kinds of students as well—and to balance different priorities. “We aren’t necessarily going to do what current students want because we also serve the interests of prospective students and past students, and we have to balance those things.”

He said the regulator was in the process of discussing with the panel and others how to reinforce the extent to which student insight is put at the heart of what it does.

Always keen to present a balanced view, the only time Blake seems wrong-footed is when asked what difference a Labour government might make to the work of the OfS. Blake was a founder of the website Labour Teachers but was also inspired by the education reforms of Michael Gove, now secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities and co-founder of the right-leaning Policy Exchange think tank where Blake once worked.

After some hesitation, he said: “I don’t believe any government of any colour will not consider higher education to be of fundamental importance to the lives and life chances of people in this country. I think we carry on with the need to defend the interests of students within a sector that is highly successful, to be clear, but not always as responsive to student needs as we think it should be, and I think that will hold, whatever the government.”

Future plans

As for future OfS work, he said that while the Lifelong Loan Entitlement could have profound effects on the system in the long term, the three-year residential undergraduate degree was likely to dominate provision for some time into the future. “I don’t think people should expect [that on] day one of the LLE we’ll be living in Blade Runner.”

More immediately—and intriguingly—he thinks work needs to be done around how the OfS allocates the £1.4 billion of funding that it distributes to the sector. This is the money that supports non-capital spending, including high-cost subjects, student access projects, and development of degree apprenticeships and level 4 and 5 provision.

He particularly singled out the student premium and disabled student premium as needing attention—the OfS has recently established a committee on disability in higher education and the experience of disabled students.

He suggested a rethink was needed of “the shape” of this funding and whether it was the right way to stimulate the kinds of activity wanted in the sector.

It is two years since the OfS consulted on its approach to recurrent funding for 2021-22, which led to reductions for arts-based courses and the scrapping of London weighting.

With even less fat to cut from the overall budget, it will be interesting to see what a reshaping of distribution of this money might look like, and, as he conceded, government will also have a view.

This article first appeared in the Research Professional News 8am Playbook email, published this morning. To enquire about subscribing to Playbook, please fill in this form and include ‘8am Playbook’ as the subject.