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Changes to the regulation of English higher education providers

In response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic the Office for Students (OfS) has introduced changes to the reportable events for registered higher education providers (HEPs) in England.

Documents issued by the OfS

The revised requirements are detailed in a letter sent to HEP Accounting Officers by Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration at the OfS.

In addition, OfS has issued two associated documents:

The new requirements

The OfS has introduced “two narrowly-defined reportable events relating to:

  • Short-term financial risk
  • Cessation or suspension of the delivery of higher education, including the inability to award qualifications or credit”

Short-term financial risk

The new reportable event is designed to enable OfS to identify providers “likely to experience acute financial challenges in the short-term”. It is also aims to help OfS understand patterns across the sector, and for different groups of providers.

“A provider is required to report to the OfS if it considers it to be reasonably likely that its liquidity will drop below 30 days at any point during a rolling three month period from the date of the report to the OfS”.

Where a provider identifies a short-term financial risk it is expected to report the matter to OfS “within five days of the date that it concludes that a scenario is reasonably likely to occur”.

OfS acknowledges that “it is not possible at the moment for providers to identify the long-term impact of pandemic”. For this reason OfS is removing the requirement to “report events with implications for viability or sustainability over a three- to five-year horizon”.

Cessation or suspension of delivery of higher education

The OfS requires providers to report “significant changes to delivery of higher education”. This requirement is designed to protect students from instances of HEPs ceasing or suspending delivery of units, modules or courses, or being “unable to award qualifications or credit for any unit, module or course”.

The new requirement does not include moving teaching and assessment to an online or other delivery method, or the closure of a campus if teaching continues to be delivered.

F3 F4 Notice.

The Notice is addressed to the governing body of the HEP. The Notice refers to the data returns registered HEPs are required to submit as part of the ongoing conditions of registration. OfS is “removing the immediate deadlines for submission of the majority of these data returns”. Nevertheless, the data is likely to be required as some point in the future, so providers are expected to continue to collect the data.

Providers will need to continue to submit some data returns and these are set out in the F3 F4 Notice. Eg. Annual Financial Return.

Period to which the announced changes apply

As the period of disruption resulting from COVID-19 is unknown, the regulatory changes made by OfS are “temporary but open-ended by nature”. OfS states the requirements will “remain in place until further notice”.

Conclusion

The changes introduced by the OfS are aims to ensure it understands the developing impact of COVID-19 on the solvency of HEPs, while at the same time seeking to ensure student interests are protected. As they seek to find a way through unchartered waters, both issues are of high concern to executive teams and governing bodies. In this context, it is important that there is good and effective communication between executive teams and their governing bodies, and that governors are fully aware of any developing issues.

 

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