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Financial sustainability of higher education in England

Higher education providers can have a fundamental influence on the future lives of graduates, with consequences for the national economy – but to do so they must be financially viable and remain sustainable. Providers are independent bodies, and the sector’s financial sustainability is heavily dependent on student fee income, top-up grant funding, and government research funding. Providers face a range of financial pressures, including challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Office for Students (OfS), an arm’s-length body sponsored by the Department for Education (the Department), began operating in January 2018 and seeks to protect students’ interests. This study will examine how well the Department and OfS are protecting students’ and taxpayers’ interests from risks to higher education providers’ financial sustainability, including:

  • whether the Department has set a clear purpose and scope for the oversight regime;
  • whether the Department and OfS are effectively managing known, systemic, risks;
  • and whether the Department and OfS have responded appropriately to new financial risks, for example arising from COVID and EU exit.

The study complements our 2017 report on The higher education market, and builds on the NAO’s track record of reports on financial and service sustainability.