Written by Ola Szaran

Chief Marketing Officer

In these times you could be forgiven for believing that the inner workings of Government have been completely taken over by Brexit. But in those departments not emptied by the demands of ‘no-deal’ contingency planning, work still goes on as relatively normal.

A sign of this was the publication yesterday of the annual Strategic Guidance to the Office for Students (OfS) by the Secretary of State Damian Hinds.

The OfS becomes the ‘big beast’ of the sector coming fully into its statutory duty as the financial regulator of HE on the 1st August this year.

So, what are the implications of the Minister’s guidance for students, potential students, their families and carers?

On the face of it, there is little change from last year’s guidance letter apart from a change of Universities Minister. The OfS is to continue to register all HE providers that meet directly or indirectly by way of Franchised qualification arrangements its registration criteria both financial and academic. Work that has been seen by successive Ministers as protection for students, taxpayers and the sector reputation.

It has maintained its monitoring by way of publication and analysis of senior staff remuneration in Universities. However, given that Vice Chancellor’s pay and benefits are reported in accounts they are at least a year or two behind and that Universities are autonomous and bound by employee contracts as are all other employers; there will be little immediate impact. Though we still expect the press continue to baulk at how much more than the Prime Minister senior staff in Universities are being paid.

On ‘Access and Participation in HE’, it seems that the Minister is starting to hear what many directly supporting students (such as Blackbullion) have been saying and evidencing for some time. Getting into university is one thing, staying there and being successful is quite another.

Non-continuation rates peak amongst students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.

This year the Minister asks the OfS to encourage providers to give greater access to pastoral and emotional support to Care Leavers. Vital those these are, the very real issue of a lack of financial capability impacts not only care leavers but many students from a range of backgrounds and parts of the country. Without support to develop their financial capability, debt can accumulate quickly and have a deadly impact on not only wellbeing, and mental health but on a student’s continuation at university.

Running like lettering through a stick of rock in the Minister’s guidance is the importance of the OfS ensuring that Universities deliver ‘value for money’ for taxpayers, for students and their families. Whether in that order is not yet clear and we would contend that students should come first.

The same wording will be found in the soon to be published Augar Report into the funding of Higher Education in England. What the Minster’s letter goes onto reveal gives us a clue as to how the Government sees the value of money.

The first clue can be found in the mid-1990s when tuition fees were introduced, giving for the first time a figure by which the cost of getting a degree could be judged against its benefits.

The establishment of a link between tuition fee levels and definitions of ‘value for money’ over twenty years ago has meant that items that student have to buy on a day to day basis; accommodation, food, travel, books etc, have been rendered nearly invisible. Yet these essentials of student life without a growing development of financial capability can lead to crippling levels of debt, stress and perhaps go onto become the major reason from dropping out of university.

The letter continues the Government’s desire to see ‘value for money’ defined by a simple relationship between tuition fee levels and graduate earnings as measured by the new Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset.

The measurement of post-graduation income was until recently undertaken at six months out from Graduation. Under LEO that has stretched to three years and in yesterday’s letter the Minister wants the OfS to look at what Graduates will be earning five years out. This will mean that a medical student who typically tends to top the graduate earning table, who starts their studies this September will have to wait until 2031 to find out if their degree was really ‘value for money’.

But these are very uncertain times, as the Minister states in his letter, ‘additional priorities warranting further supplementary guidance may emerge through 2019/20’. A not so oblique reference to the possibility that the Augar Review may recommend the reduction in the level of tuition fees, bringing with it an interesting stress test of the government’s model of value for money. Plus, of course, the elephant in the room of HE and beyond – Brexit.

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