7th September 2023Higher Education Chair of Audit Committee roundtable – the view from the regulator

At our recent Higher Education Chair of Audit Committee Roundtable, we were fortunate to be joined by Nolan Smith from the Office for Students (OfS) to discuss the following areas:

  • Teaching quality & teaching standards
  • Access & participation
  • Financial sustainability
  • Governance

Teaching quality & teaching standards

Quality is a core objective for OfS and is an area where their role is increasing, partly because the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has stepped back from being the designated quality body, so they are taking on the responsibilities.. This is a significant portfolio of work. OfS have appointed just over 150 external assessors who are experts in education across the sector.

The panel have been assessing the 129 providers that are taking part in The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) with provisional decisions being with providers in August and a representations process in September. By early Autumn there will be publication of the TEF outcomes; the is likely to have potential reputational implications for institutions.

The OfS is also doing quite a lot of investigation type work, looking at the quality of courses, particularly in business and management, and computing. Those will be the first major assessments that they will report on. They are also doing some reviews around student outcomes looking at 12 providers across the sector and are looking to publish information later this year. Most of this is likely to be in the public domain once the conclusions have been reached.

Quality is such a fundamental area for universities, and it is an area which Audit Committees should fully understand in terms of the processes – how do the executives at the university know what the quality of teaching is across their portfolio of work? It’s an area in the past where there have been issues and sometimes governing bodies just weren’t aware of some of the activity going on.

How can universities be measuring quality?

Universities should be asking a number of questions. For example,  how does our higher education institution sit amongst its peers? Are we out of line with other institutions that we could benchmark against? What are the controls in each area, department, or faculty; what are the governance arrangements for courses being established for the appropriate teaching provisions to be made available? Arewe as a higher education institution focussing our efforts on the areas in which we are going to succeed? Are the students going to graduate with good outcomes?

Access & participation/quality of opportunity

The OfS are focusing on student outcomes and are integrating it into their quality work. As part of this they are looking at the success of institutions in improving participation. The sector is hugely diverse in terms of equality of opportunity, and it is important for the OfSto see improvements in participation across all providers, but also recognising that starting points are very different with diversity in the types of students they enrol. Therefore they are assessing the activities across the sector and considering what is, and what isn’t working; while it is an area of regulation, OfS are trying to put more emphasis on supporting institutions to improve access.

Despite the economic crisis, over the past couple of years the number of UK students has increased and so there is greater participation, and at this stage, there is not the equivalent number of dropouts, so there is an improved retention of students. There will be a variety of different reasons for this shift and it is an area which is monitored very closely with the aim of giving support where possible.

In order to address the imbalance of support, the OfS provides additional funding for those institutions that ‘do the heavy lifting’, or, in other words, those that have the highest number of students who require this type of support. Through the access and participation plans they also try to push those institutions which are in a slightly more fortuitous position to do more.

Financial sustainability

One role of the OfS is to monitor the financial sustainability of individual providers in the sector as a whole. A report was published in mid-May analysing the financial data that has been returned by providers[1]. Overall, the sector is in a reasonable position. The sector generally managed Covid really well, and, has come out of it in reasonable shape. However, there are future pressures, and OfS are putting more time and energy into monitoring factors such as the cost of living crisis, inflation, the freezing of tuition fees and reliance on international students.

There is a particular nervousness about the increasing reliance on international students especially as it seems to be the only area where many universities think there can be growth in income, and that is a challenge.

The OfS have published some anonymised cases of providers that have been in financial difficulty and how they have managed it, and one of those cases details a smaller provider that had to exit the market[2]. In this case the students were protected and were transferred to another organisation. As a general rule, it is considered to be sensible to include the OfS in discussion as early as possible in order to create the best possible chance of a positive outcome.


The OfS’s expectations on governance within providers are high. Where possible they try to leave universities to run themselves, but equally there are areas where they have concerns, for example,  if universities are outsourcing delivery of their teaching to other providers and there may be questions around quality. This can often raise questions of whether universities relying on the help of third parties in order to grow is appropriate.

In terms of remuneration for Chairs, there is a question around whether offering this would help achieve greater diversity, and there are currently a small number of universities that already pay the Chair. Increasingly, recruitment agencies are feeding back that prospective candidates are demanding some form of payment beyond reasonable expenses, and this is set to become more widespread. The OfS don’t have an official stance on this yet, but it seems that perhaps there is nothing to prevent it although a careful review of individual constitutions would make sense.

Our next HE Chair of Audit Committee roundtable is at 9am on Monday 20 November 2023 where we will be joined by Nick Hillman, Director at the Higher Education Policy Institute. Contact Louise Hughes to reserve your place.

[1] https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/financial-sustainability-of-higher-education-providers-in-england-2023-update/

[2] https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/financial-sustainability-and-market-exit-cases/

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