The Office for Students (OfS) is “getting it wrong” over the regulation of higher education provision in colleges and, as a result, swathes of “non-traditional” students are facing additional barriers to accessing HE, experts have told Tes.
Since 2017, any institution offering higher education in England can apply for a place on the OfS register. Institutions that are not registered cannot access OfS or UK Research and Innovation public grant funding or charge above the basic fee amount. Registration also affects the levels of support that students can receive. Rejection by the OfS therefore effectively halts HE provision at an institution.
Tes analysis shows that so far, eight institutions have had their applications to join the OfS register rejected – half of these are further education colleges. Barking and Dagenham College, Waltham Forest College, Lancaster and Morecambe College and Newham College all failed to meet the OfS criteria. There are currently 391 providers on the register and 186 of these are FE colleges.
Background: Colleges left in limbo by Office for Students
Need to know: College rejected from HE register after injunction bid
Concerns have now been raised sector-wide about both the OfS’ approach to HE provision in FE colleges and the application process itself.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, told Tes that the OfS is “getting it wrong in terms of the way it deals with colleges”. “It hasn’t recognised that colleges are different to universities in terms of the type of students they recruit. They are more part-time, more mature, more local,” he said. “The nature of HE in colleges is very different to the nature of HE in universities in general.”
The difference of HE in FE
All four of the above-listed colleges were rejected under clause B3, which looks at continuation rate data – the number of HE students progressing from the first and second year of study. Experts told Tes that cohorts of HE students in FE institutions are much smaller than those who choose to study HE at a university. This means that if, for example, five students in a cohort of 15 at an FE college don’t continue to the second year of study, it has a much bigger impact than the same number of students leaving a university course with a traditionally much larger cohort.
Yvonne Kelly, principal of Barking and Dagenham College, told Tes that college retention rates were affected by a whole host of socioeconomic factors, which meant that students may not be able to continue on to year two – despite passing all of the initial entry criteria.
“Housing and family difficulties are likely to lead to a higher proportion of learners prioritising immediate earning opportunities above longer-term career goals. Such complexities and many more play a key role in learners being able to complete and finish their programme," she said.
Mark Farrar, chair of governors at Barking and Dagenham College, said that he wasn’t just concerned about how OfS judgements affected current students who had to continue their HE course elsewhere, but also how they affected prospective students. There are students, he said, who simply don’t want to learn in a university setting: they only want to attend their local FE college.
“One size doesn’t always fit all. We are not in the world of a typical university here with residential students," he said. "We’ve got all sorts of challenges, all sorts of walks and backgrounds in life coming through, and that lies in the crux of the matter."
Mr Hughes said that he was “really worried about the impact on opportunities and access to higher education for non-traditional learners”.
“Many colleges are now asking themselves whether they can afford to stay delivering HE and whether they are able to take on the burden of being registered by the OfS," he explained. "The risk of that is that opportunities for adults across the country, in particular cold spots like Brighton, the Midlands and northern industrial towns, will disappear and the opportunities for the sorts of people that the government is interested in just won’t be there.”
In a statement after its rejection by the OfS, Waltham Forest College principal Dr Joy Kettyle said that the OfS had to “fully appreciate the challenges some of our students face and their personal journey to overcome them”.
Impact of the Office for Students
Meanwhile, after its rejection, Lancaster and Morecambe College announced that it would no longer be continuing its “financially unsustainable, small, traditional HE offer.”
Barking and Dagenham submitted its application on 23 May 2018 and didn’t hear of a decision until 14 August 2019. Tes understands that as the decision was so close to the start of a new term, emergency meetings had to be held with students who were due to start an HE course with the college in September to ensure that alternative provision was found for them, in some cases at universities.
Some FE colleges charge less for their HE courses than universities do – and some learners would have found themselves having to pay an extra £12,000 over three years due to the transfer from a college to the university.
Ms Kelly raised concerns with the OfS around its use of metrics. She said: "Judgements based solely on the use of data and metrics have previously been challenged as they are only part of the picture. The issue is that the OfS, as a new regulatory body, chose this approach, even though it’s at odds with its strategy which highlights the importance of widening participation.
"The danger is that such an approach has the opposite effect by creating a risk-averse environment in which providers will not recruit those who demonstrate the potential to drop out."
She said the college had no idea what the benchmarks were – and had it known and realised it hadn’t met them, it wouldn’t have sent an application. Instead, it would have realigned its provision and looked for an alternative partner to maintain the continuity of provision.
Mr Hughes said that it was a difficult process for colleges, and that leaders often weren’t clear on what the OfS was asking of them.
He said: “It’s interesting to see in the OfS annual review that the majority of institutions registered by OfS have some degree of modification in their registration, which suggests that the registration process itself was very difficult for all types of institutions.
“When the majority of institutions are getting something wrong, that’s when the regulator should ask whether the process is good as it needs to be and as good as should be.”
Mr Hughes said that colleges were also at a disadvantage when it came to the resources they had to dedicate to the process. He said that universities have whole teams of professional staff whose job it is to understand the regulatory regime and understand the data.
Colleges 'need more support'
“If you’re a college and HE is between 5 and 20 per cent of your overall turnover, you don’t have the resources of people who are spending all their time understanding the OfS, what it needs what it wants.
“That is not understood by the OfS. And not enough support is given by colleges to help them navigate this regulatory regime,” he said.
At Barking and Dagenham, HE provision represented just 3 per cent of their overall offer. It may seem a small proportion, but was is crucial for the community, said Ms Kelly.
She added: "We are a key anchor partner within the local community, and serving local needs is our priority. The importance of providing higher-level provision for our learners is absolutely fundamental to meeting the needs of the borough. Our learners choose the college because we meet their needs.
"This pause, and it is a pause for us, has not been helpful for our learners. It could have been resolved in a much better way."
An OfS spokesperson said: “We don’t comment on individual registration decisions. One of the great strengths of English higher education is its diversity and we always take into consideration the context in which a provider operates. Further education colleges offer hugely valuable higher education provision, and a large number of further education colleges completed the OfS’ registration process without issue.
"Registration with the OfS brings with it a number of important benefits, and it is right that the registration process is robust and protects the interests of all current and future students. We are clear it cannot be right for a regulatory system to entrench inequality by accepting that students with protected characteristics or from less advantaged backgrounds should receive less good outcomes than students who come to higher education with more advantage – this must be the case wherever students choose to study.”