England’s higher education regulator is failing to meet the needs of students and is “not trusted” by many universities, peers have warned.
A report by the House of Lords’ industry and regulators committee has accused the Office for Students (OfS), England’s universities watchdog, of lacking independence from the Government.
The Government should consider making it a requirement that serving politicians resign any party political whip they hold before becoming chairs of independent regulators, the Lords committee says.
Lord Wharton, chair of the OfS, is a Conservative peer. His appointment to the independent regulator in 2021 sparked criticism from the Labour Party.
The report suggests that the OfS’ own actions “often appear driven by political priorities” and too often the watchdog “translates ministerial and media attitudes into regulatory burdens”.
It adds: “There have been too many examples of the OfS acting like an instrument of the Government’s policy agenda rather than an independent regulator. It is vital that regulators have both real and perceived independence from Government, and the OfS has a lot of work to do on this.”
The Lords committee report – which has been published following an inquiry into the OfS – concludes: “It is not trusted by and does not have the confidence of many of the providers it regulates. But it has arguably not acted in the real interests of students either.”
“Students often feel their views are not acted upon, especially where they were not aligned with what the OfS wants to do,” it adds.
The committee has called on the OfS to hold universities and colleges to account if they do not ensure prospective students receive clear, digestible information on their course – including its long-term costs, approximate contact hours and the balance between online and in-person learning.
The report also warns that both the OfS and Government are failing to act on the “looming” financial crisis facing universities across England amid increased costs and frozen undergraduate tuition fees.
Lord Hollick, chair of the Lords’ industry and regulators committee, said: “At a time when the higher education sector faces a looming crisis caused by financial instability, increased costs, industrial action, and reduced EU research funding, it is vital that the sector’s regulator is fit for purpose.
“However, it was evident throughout our inquiry that the OfS is failing to deliver and does not command the trust or respect of either providers, or students, the very people whose interests it is supposed to defend.
“We were surprised by the regulator’s view that the sector’s finances are in good shape, which is not an assessment that we or most of our witnesses share.”
The University and College Union (UCU) has called on Lord Wharton to resign in light of the report.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “This report is more evidence that the Office for Students is failing students and is not fit for purpose. It was asleep at the wheel when staff were forced to take industrial action, and has done nothing to support students or push employers to settle the dispute.
“It’s clear that the sector does not have confidence in how the regulator is operating and the chair, Lord Wharton, should do the decent thing and step down.”
Lord Wharton said: “The committee, and others, have been right to signal the particular importance of financial sustainability in higher education. We monitor individual institutions, gather intelligence to identify system-wide risk, and publish our analysis of financial sustainability across the sector.
“Our detailed analysis of the data universities provide to us suggests that many are in good financial shape.
“We are also alive to significant risks, including the impact of a fixed undergraduate tuition fee, cost pressures and an overreliance by some on international students.
“Our important work in this area is often not publicly visible. But we will continue to identify risk and use the tools we have to protect the interests of students if an institution encounters financial difficulties.”
He added: “The OfS has already taken proactive steps to address many of the issues the committee has raised, and we will consider its report carefully over the weeks ahead and respond more fully in due course.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “The higher education sector remains financially stable overall, and we currently provide significant financial support of nearly £7 billion per year, plus more than £10 billion per year in tuition fee loans.
“International students accounted for just 15% of all undergraduate entrants at UK providers in 2021/22. Attracting the brightest students internationally is good for our universities and delivers growth at home. Funding from international students helps support the creation of more places – not fewer – for domestic students.
“The Office for Students is driving up the quality of higher education by holding our world-leading universities to account and championing students’ interests. We will consider all of the recommendations in full and respond in due course.”