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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution. Clause 56 and Schedule 5 as drafted will ensure that the Office for Students and the Secretary of State have the powers needed to investigate effectively if there are grounds to suspect serious breaches of funding or registration conditions at higher education providers. The amendment recognises that these powers are necessary where there are suspicions of fraud, or serious or wilful mismanagement of public funds.
As the noble Baroness indicated, we would expect the majority of cases where these powers would be used to fall into this category, but limiting the powers to this category would risk compromising our ability to investigate effectively certain other cases where value for public money, quality, or the student interest is at risk.
The OfS may, at the time of an institution’s registration or later, impose a “specific registration” condition. This is a key part of our risk-based regulatory framework. For example, an institution with high drop-out and low qualification rates could have a student number control imposed by the OfS if it considered that this poor level of performance was related to recruiting more students than the institution could properly cater for.
A breach of such a condition may not constitute fraud, or serious or wilful mismanagement of public money, as students will still be eligible to access student support. But there is a very real risk that students, quality, and value for public money will all suffer. If the OfS has reason to believe that despite, for example, the imposition of a condition that limits the numbers of students a provider can recruit the provider is nevertheless undertaking an aggressive student enrolment campaign, it will be important that evidence can be swiftly secured to confirm this. If the proposed amendment were made, a warrant to enter and search may not be granted in such cases. That would be an unfortunate and perhaps unintended deficiency in these important powers. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw Amendment 364.