England's new Office for Students is now up and running
Promoting students' interests. Source: Shutterstock

The new regulator for higher education in England has come into legal existence as of Monday, replacing the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Deemed a major milestone for the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act Office for Students, the Office for Students (OfS) will regulate universities in the same way as water or gas utilities, according to The Guardian.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson lauded the new marketing regulator’s triple aim of ensuring the value for money of students’ degrees, tackling rising debt and opening higher education to increased competition.

“It’s a fundamentally different way of looking at how the sector is regulated. It’s a classic marketing regulator, rather than a funding council whose principle job up until now has been to ensure the sector was suitably funded and the financial sustainability of the sector was assured,” Johnson said, during the OfS’s launch.

“This is a regulator that is going to be driving value for money in the provision of higher education. That’s a core concern right now for students who are bearing the cost or a significant part of the cost of their higher education.”

The super-regulator will have powers to promote the higher education market, distribute grants, award university status and even to enter premises with a warrant. “Students’ interests” will be its core business, according to Times Higher EducationAs universities deal with issues of exorbitant pay among vice-chancellors, freedom of speech on campus and “inconsistent performance” among institutions, Johnson has said the regulator is needed to address these and restore confidence in these publicly-funded institutions.

“The sector has expanded very rapidly over the past two or three decades. We are now in the position where almost half of people under 30 are going through higher education. It is entirely right that the sector is accountable for the investment they and the government – on behalf of taxpayers – are making in it,” Johnson said.

It’s not off to a positive start, however. Its appointment of former journalist and free school advocate Toby Young to its board has drawn criticism, though the government has defended his appointment based on his previous posts in Harvard and for founding a successful free school programme in the UK.

“If this organisation was to have any credibility, it needed a robust board looking out for students’ interests. Instead, we have this announcement sneaked out at New Year with Tory cheerleader Toby Young dressed up as the voice of teachers and no actual representation from staff or students,” University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said.

The criticism goes beyond Young’s appointment. Supporters and critics are reportedly doubtful of OfS’s effectiveness, from the possibility of political pressure from the government to its lack of power over the hundreds of unregulated private providers operating in England.

“My worry is that the OfS is going to become snowed under with important ‘micro’ issues like senior pay, grade inflation and so on,” said Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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