Save universities from more misguided regulation

Well-meaning but fundamentally wrong proposals for yet more regulation

hecommission-regulationreportcoversmaller

Just when you thought things couldn’t get much worse in terms of higher education regulation, another group comes along and proposes a whole load more. Brilliant. (I’ve posted before here on this issue.)

I’ve not seen the report yet (it is due to be published today) but the Guardian has and has commented at some length on its contents under the title “What universities need: regulation, regulation, regulation” which gives us a bit of a steer on the conclusions. It is suggested that there is massive risk here which only what looks like a shed load (technical term for a unit of unnecessary bureaucracy) of additional regulation can mitigate:

They warn that without proper regulation, there is little to protect students from disreputable or fly-by-night institutions. “We are concerned that there is a growing unregulated sector of higher education that may be offering insufficient provision to students,” the report states. “This has the potential to damage England’s reputation as a leading provider of higher education.” It also threatens students’ confidence that the thousands of pounds they pay in fees will secure them a top-quality education, at an institution that will not go bust.Paper_tape_table_dispenser-01

The authors argue that there is also a commercial case for better regulation: it encourages businesses to invest in the sector and banks to lend institutions money. “We believe that the current regulatory environment in higher education, and the changes that are in-train, are insufficient to achieve this,” the report says.

It is far from clear what this “unregulated sector” is. Is it the alternative private providers which have been ushered into higher education by this government? Perhaps, but whilst they are arguably under-regulated they are not exactly “fly-by-night” outfits. So where are these shady backstreet higher education providers which are necessitating all this extra red tape? Perhaps they are listed in the report but it is far from clear from this who we are talking about.

Until now, regulation of higher education institutions has been piecemeal, dictated partly by rules, such as health and safety, that govern any large organisation, partly by institutional committees responsible for setting and monitoring standards on research and course programmes, and partly by academic senates, boards of governors and sector-owned bodies, such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency, supporting effective management. Hefce and the Office for Fair Access also act as independent external regulators, monitoring respectively institutions’ financial health and efforts to be socially inclusive, while Hefce contracts the Quality Assurance Agency to monitor teaching quality.

In his review, published in 2010, which recommended lifting the cap on tuition fees, Lord Browne suggested merging all the regulatory bodies into a single, independent Higher Education Council. Earlier this year, the Institute for Public Policy Research came up with a similar proposal. The government has never acted on the idea.

Now, the commission recommends a “lead” regulator, the Council for Higher Education, incorporating Offa, the Office for Student Loans (formerly the Student Loans Company) and a new, lightly staffed Office for Competition and Institutional Diversity, each retaining individual structures and purposes. Other regulatory bodies, including QAA and Office for the Independent Adjudicator, would be linked but independent.

Whilst it is right to identify that there is a messy patchwork of legislation and regulation affecting higher education, the ideas which have been floated to tidy this up seem to have been motivated by views of a need for tidiness and convenience for those involved in regulating than what is actually in the interest of students, universities, the sector or the country/countries concerned. The government has not acted on these ideas for the very good reason that they don’t make sense. Moreover, it looks from this piece as if the report is seeking to combine UK-wide and English agencies without regard to the positions of the devolved nations.

One final point caught my eye here:

The report also proposes an insurance scheme, paid into by every institution, to safeguard students should an institution or course fail, and based on a scheme run by the Civil Aviation Authority. This may be controversial, with traditional institutions reluctant to pay into a scheme designed to bail out new, riskier operations that fail.

“May be controversial”? What delightfully amusing understatement.

To summarise. We need less regulation, not more. Higher education is already over-regulated and this impacts negatively on institutions’ ability to deliver their missions. This kind of report I fear offers only a recipe for further bureaucracy and waste in higher education and will not benefit students or the sector. So, thanks but no thanks.

2 thoughts on “Save universities from more misguided regulation

  1. There are definite “fly-by-night” organisations in the private sector, I could name a few (although LondonSAM have recently collapsed).

    I think there does need to be regulation for those organisations, It’s been an issue with government policy for years. There are largely unregulated areas-like private sector postgraduate business education-which are being taken advantage of. The changes to Home Office regulations have helped strangle that practice a bit but, let’s face it, everything that one could argue has been set up to try and regulate these institutions has ended up gutting the HE sector that already existed. If anything, private providers that, before, would have been dodgy as hell are now heralded. *side eyes previous employer*

    That’s not to say all private providers are awful, there are some great ones who deserve praise, but my GOD there are some that shouldn’t be in business and market forces just aren’t doing the job that free market ideologues say should happen.

    The question isn’t whether there needs to be more or less regulation. It needs to be whether the current regulation is working for all involved and adjusting the regulation to give universities more freedom and autonomy and private providers the same, if not more, quality guidelines.

  2. Agreed that we need the right kind of regulation. But we absolutely don’t need more. I fear this kind of proposition simply serves to add more layers and greater complexity without really tackling the problems you identify. Mainstream universities just end up spending even more time and money on pointless compliance rather than on teaching and research.

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