Thursday, 29 September 2011

In which the regulators of English HE do not appear to advantage

In principle, I am sympathetic to the plight of the quangocrat. I was one myself once, and it isn't always easy to balance the interests of your many stakeholders. I've posted before about my appreciation for the precisely-tuned prose which results when these matters are handled with sufficient delicacy.

In the case of OFFA, it is vital to remember that OFFA was created for the single and sole purpose of providing political cover for fee increases. It has no powers whatsoever to compel any university to widen access or admit fairly. The two powers the Director does have are to refuse an Access Agreement or to administer small fines. The one is to extreme to be used, the other too petty to bother talking about.

Nonetheless there are cases when the plates stop spinning, and the whole farrago collapses in confusion. OFFA's joint report with HEFCE on Access Agreement and Widening Participation Strategic Assessments for 2009/10 is one of those. From this report you cannot tell
  • if access to any university has become fairer or less fair in 2009/10;
  • if participation has been widened in any way in 2009/10;
  • which universities (if any) have made progress or failed to make progress against which targets
We are quite literally offered the finding that:
In 2009-10, 190 institutions set statistical targets relating to applicants and entrants. 76.8 per cent of institutions reported they had either exceeded or met all or most of their statistical targets, and 23.2 per cent had not yet met targets but had made some positive progress
based on institutions self-reporting from a drop-down menu. It is no wonder that less dispassionate observers than me sometimes get annoyed about the sheer pointlessness of OFFA when it is so nakedly displayed.

If this was a successful attempt to cover the offences of certain elite institutions that haven't widened access very aggressively, or admitted very fairly over recent years then one could perhaps understand that this kind of shady practice with the public sometimes falls to the lot of the quangocrat. But of course the data needed to show how is doing what are mostly in the public domain, and where OFFA have data from their monitoring that is not in the public domain, under FoI they cannot fail to release it. Hence it is that a day after OFFA circulate my advanced copy of the report, I get the following email:

Dear OFFA contact,

OFFA has received a freedom of information request from a journalist for full details of progress made by institutions against their access milestones in each year since 2006-07. This includes performance data for each institution, including whether they have met milestones, missed them or otherwise.

As you are an institution who has submitted annual monitoring returns to OFFA, I am writing to tell you how we intend to respond to this request and to seek your views.

Under section 1(1) of the FOIA, requesters are usually entitled to be told whether we hold any information that falls within the scope of their request and, if we do, to have that information provided to them except where it is covered by an exemption. In cases where access to information is refused by OFFA in reliance on an exemption from disclosure, OFFA has a duty to give reasons for that refusal. Further information about the FOIA can be found here: .

Having reviewed the monitoring returns and performance data, our initial view is that there is a public interest in disclosing this information and therefore it should be released under the Act. We are preparing the documents for release by the deadline of 7 October.  We have made it clear in each of our monitoring guidance documents that, should we receive an FOI request, individual monitoring returns are unlikely to be treated as confidential except in very particular circumstances.

So OFFA and HEFCE will gain the opprobrium of publishing a patently useless report, without even protecting the blushes of those institutions that they are trying to protect. All in all, not a good day for the regulators


1 comment:

  1. What a great thought.
    I really appreciate your perspective.
    John Chappelear