OFT gives English HE a 2i (just)

A decent result for HE in England?

A previous post noted the launch of an OFT investigation into competition in the HE sector in England. After gathering much information the OFT has now published a report which, broadly (and perhaps grudgingly), says things are working well:

Overall, our analysis of the higher education sector in England highlights that it is, in many respects, performing to very high standards and enjoys an excellent reputation at the national and international level.

It is also clear that there is no evidence of collusion on fee-setting.

There is a caveat though, and quite a big one

However, we have identified a number of challenges that need to be addressed if the sector is to fulfill its potential to deliver to the benefit of students and the wider society, especially in light of the increased role of competition between higher education institutions (including internationally) and choice by students. In doing so, there is a role for the CMA to play, working with and through stakeholders to address these challenges in a timely and effective manner.

Some of these challenges include:

  • students not being given some key information, such as their teaching staff’s experience or long-term employment prospects, to enable them to choose the most appropriate course and institution
  • some policies and practices by universities, such as changes to elements of the course and/or fees, or not providing all the relevant information about their course, that could put students at a disadvantage and might, in some cases, breach consumer protection legislation
  • while the complaints process has improved, it could be quicker and more accessible

index

Fair enough, we can look at all that. But perhaps the biggest issue in the report is this:

the sector’s regulatory regime is overly complex and does not reflect the increased role of student choice and the wider range of higher education institutions. In particular, there are concerns about the existence of a ‘level playing field’, the role of self-regulation, and the lack of arrangements should a university or course close.

On the basis of these findings, the OFT recommends that its successor body, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), undertakes further work to assess the extent to which the practices identified may affect students, clarifies the responsibilities of universities under consumer protection law and identifies the best way to address these issues.

It also advises that the CMA should work with, and through, stakeholders to inform the design of a regulatory regime which can better contribute to maximising the potential benefits of choice and competition.

In other words the new CMA, OFY’s successor, is being lined up to play a part in helping address regulation in HE. Just splendid. Our ‘level playing field’, which is far from level nor a playing field nor with pitch markings accepted by most participants in the regulatory game is already more of a mud bath and the arrival of the CMA is, I fear, unlikely to assist.

However, that moan aside, this is on the whole an outcome which could have been much worse and confirms that, as many of us would have said at the beginning of the process, there’s nothing to see here.

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Too Many Administrators?

Here we go again

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting piece on administrative staff numbers which suggests that a 28% growth in Higher Education work force numbers is primarily due to additional administrative staff.

As report says

Other industries have found ways to outsource services that are not central to what they do, but higher education has invested more and more—as part of a strategy, he contended. Just as a cable company bundles channels together and makes you pay for them all, whether or not you watch them, colleges have bundled counseling, athletics, campus activities, and other services with the instructional side to justify charging more.

“All of those things they are bundling are adding to the price of attendance,” he said.

So, not a terribly helpful view.

And, naturally, people working in student services see things rather differently:

Patricia L. Leonard, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said that growth in student services might reflect colleges’ response to increased regulation and pressure from parents and policy makers.

Faculty members typically don\’t deal with legal disputes, government regulations, athletics compliance, or intervention in mental-health, sexual-assault, or disabilities issues—that’s the professional staff’s job, she said.

“When you put that all together, there may be increased staff, but it’s because campuses are trying to meet the need,” she said. “Any one case is extremely time-consuming.”

People have come to expect that education extends to activities outside the classroom, she said. Many of her staff members not only coordinate with instructors, but also teach classes.

“It’s an integrated approach,” she said, “and I don’t think that would happen if it were outsourced.”

We’ve been here before. A previous post on this subject made my position pretty clear on this issue I think:

In order for the academic staff to deliver on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is essential that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week on the ‘phone trying to sort out tax issues or cut the grass outside the office every month because there aren’t any other staff to do this work. These services are required and staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties.

So, there is a lot more to be done to support the student experience, a great deal more regulation to deal with and ever more support required to help academics do the best job they can. There will undoubtedly be scope for efficiencies too and the situation in the UK is nowhere near as dramatic as shown by this US data but still this does not point to immediate outsourcing as the solution to all of these concerns.

The Imperfect University: 2013 collection

Because universities are still difficult, but still worth it

With the latest post, on Robbins, we are now up to a total of 18 pieces to date in the Imperfect University series. Covering a wide range of occasionally relevant issues I do hope there is something for everyone in here. And there is a question at the end.  Anyway, do let me know what you think – here are the posts from 2013:

The first chapter

A collection of the first series of Imperfect University posts from 2012

Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

A piece based on a conference presentation looking at changes in higher education in the past 50 years and what the future might hold.

Rational admissions

On why it is time to look again at a move to post-qualification admissions or PQA.

Know your history

A piece about the value of a well-developed sense of institutional history.

The end of internationalisation?

Why MOOCs really aren’t going to end universities’ international activities.

Free information?

On the problems with and impact of freedom of information requests.

What do we know about leadership in higher education?

Not a great deal seems to be the answer.

Truly transnational

A look at the dimensions of a genuinely global higher education operation.

Finally, from the top – The Imperfect University provides the original introduction to the series

More to follow in the year ahead. In the meantime, here’s a question. Is it time for an Imperfect University book?

Whatever the answer, will keep the series going.

Do we really need more performance indicators in HE?

Review proposes yet more performance indicators.

An earlier post noted that the UK Performance Indicators Steering Group (or the UKPISG, perhaps one of the least felicitous acronyms in higher education), was undertaking a major review of performance Indicators for higher education. It was hoped (by me at least) that this might lead to some rationalisation of performance indicators and a reduction in the demands placed on universities to provide data.

Disappointingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, there is to be no reduction in this burden. Rather the group has concluded that the performance indicators are valued by the higher education sector and the current approach should be retained.
performance
It also recommends:

broadening the populations and institutions covered by UKPIs to take account of the changing make-up of HE provision and of the HE sector

introducing a small number of additional UKPIs to take account of the wider role of higher education.

So, more rather than less.

There is also going to be more detailed investigation into current PIs and, once this completed, exploration of new areas for additional PIs will begin.

We therefore have a little breathing room but it remains a very disappointing outcome.

 

Universities unable to regulate guns on campus

More crimes about guns

A post here a couple of years ago noted the challenges US universities were facing in trying to address guns on campus. More recently there was news in a survey on US students’ views on carrying concealed weapons which highlighted what seemed to be quite a large proportion of students who did not object to concealed carry.

Now Inside Higher Ed reports that a Florida appeals court has rejected the right of public universities to regulate guns on campus.

Someone who posted a pic on Facebook to offer a nuanced view on this topic

The court has determined that universities, except in limited circumstances, lack the legal right to regulate gun possession on campus:

The ruling came in a case involving a rule at the University of North Florida banning students from keeping guns in their cars. But the appeals court went beyond that rule (which it rejected) to speak more generally to the right of public colleges and universities to limit gun possession on campus, as local news media indicated they do. Under Florida’s Constitution, the appeals court found, only the Legislature can make such restrictions, so most rules imposed by public colleges and universities would be invalid.

Sadly they're talking about real ones

sadly they’re talking about real ones

The university had argued that a specific exemption in Florida law giving school districts the right to regulate guns in their facilities applied to public universities as well. The appeals court rejected that argument, saying that lawmakers specify different types of educational institutions in their regulations, so that references to school districts cannot be assumed to go beyond elementary and secondary education.

As noted in the report this leaves universities “powerless” to deal with guns on campus and the decision “defies common sense.” This puts it mildly. In order to maintain a safe and secure environment for students, staff and the public, surely they have to have the power to govern the presence of weapons on campus.

The Imperfect University: Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

All change please! Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

Rewriting Robbins? The very thought

I recently agreed to give a presentation on this theme at an event entitled “Rewriting Robbins” by those lovely people at SGP Martineau.

You can find the full details of the event here  and my rather fetching but nevertheless superficial parade of pictures here:

Apologies in advance

Having agreed to deliver such a presentation I quickly realized the mistake I’d made but by then it was too late. It was of course ridiculously presumptuous to undertake such an exercise and even to contemplate commenting on Robbins with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight seemed like an outrageous impertinence. So, apologies in advance for any offence caused.

There was recently a very good piece in the Times Higher on Robbins. Among the many interesting points was a recollection from one of his committee members, Claus Moser, that Robbins wrote nothing down during the many sessions of the Committee, preferring to commit data to his phenomenal memory. He then went off and wrote the whole report pretty much by himself. Another key factor was that is was intended to be thoroughly evidence-based. And you can see in the rigour of the investigations and the detail of the appendices that this was carried through. Robbins didn’t want to make recommendations which weren’t properly grounded.

Going for growth

A fundamental principle was the need to expand in order to meet the future needs of the country and the demand from a post-war population boom. He anticipated an increase in the APR from 8% in 1963 to 17% by 1980 meaning 216k students in 1962-3 rising to 560k by 1980-81.

And in facilitating this expansion the most famous Robbins Principle was invoked:

courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.

Part of the growth could be met by the new universities already under development or planned but there would still be a need for more places so Robbins proposed a range of additional institutions:

It may be that most of the university places that are required in the next ten years can be provided by such developments. But if no further steps are taken, the situation will thereafter be irretrievable, for universities take long to establish. We therefore recommend the immediate foundation of six new universities, of which at least one should be in Scotland. Another would be the new Special Institution for Scientific and Technological Education and Research. Such new foundations might provide 30,000 places by 1980. The remaining places should be provided by the advancement to university status of some ten Regional Colleges and Colleges of Education. If the scale of these recommendations should seem over-ambitious, we would remind the sceptics that demographic projections beyond 1980 suggest no lessening of the rate at which the demand for places will grow.

Robbins cover

In short the growth would include:

  • Six new universities should be established at once so that they can provide about 30,000 places by 1980/1.
  • Teacher training institutions should become proper Colleges of Education and aligned with universities
  • Three special Institutions for Scientific and Technological Education and Research should be created.
  • Two postgraduate business schools, providing courses in management, should be developed, each in association with a university or a Special Institution and close to a large business centre.
  • Scottish Central institutions – the most advanced should become universities
  • A further 20,000 university places should be provided by giving university status to some ten Regional Colleges, Central Institutions and Colleges of Education.
  • And in addition he proposed that the CATS, the Colleges of Advanced Technology should all become universities, each with 3-5000 students

(All of this is set out in Chapter X of the report although I must be honest that I found some of the institutional types difficult to disentangle on occasion.)

CATS and non-CATS

And sure enough in1966, the CATS became universities. Some of these are obvious, others less so:

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Cats

  • Birmingham CAT became Aston University (the first designated College of Advanced Technology (or CAT))
  • Loughborough CAT became Loughborough University
  • Northampton CAT (London) became City University
  • Chelsea CAT became Chelsea College of Science and Technology as part of the University of London then later was subsumed into King’s College London
  • Battersea CAT became the University of Surrey
  • Brunel CAT became Brunel University
  • Bristol CAT became the University of Bath
  • Cardiff CAT became part of the University of Wales, then Cardiff University
  • Salford CAT (the Royal College of Advanced Technology) became the University of Salford
  • Bradford Institute of Technology became University of Bradford

And just to complete the picture, the other universities founded in the 1960s:

Not Cats

Not Cats

1961   Sussex
1962   Keele
1962   Swansea
1963   East Anglia
1963   Newcastle
1963   York
1964   Lancaster
1964   Strathclyde
1965   Essex
1965   Kent
1965   Warwick
1966   Heriot-Watt
1967   Dundee
1967   Stirling
1969   Open
1969   Cranfield

Beyond Robbins: things really have moved on

Although the changes set in train by the report were substantial and far-reaching, since Robbins there has been a transformation in both the scale and reach of institutions (as well as total student numbers and the composition of the student body, which I didn’t cover here as they were addressed by others at the conference).

In looking for growth in existing institutions Robbins was anticipating universities of up to 10,000 students not the level of 30,000 which he associated with the big federal systems in the US. 10,000 students was big though:

In modern conditions it is desirable that universities should be large enough to have an adequate division of labour within departments and to make economical use of buildings and equipment.

But if we look at the sector in the UK now we have over 100 institutions with more than 10,000 students. More than half of these have over 20,000 students enrolled and leaving aside the Open University around a dozen have more than 30,000 students. A completely different scale.

What is also fascinating is to look at the growth in institutional numbers too. We have a huge growth during Robbins’ time but then a period of some stability before renewed and continuing expansion as this crude chart of UK university numbers demonstrates:

Number of universities

Number of universities

Beyond scale there are of course many other differences these days – from the pace of change to the volume of regulation and from the interconnectedness of institutions and activity to the sheer complexity of operations. In addition there is the international dimension: whilst the Committee accumulated plenty of learning from other countries it really didn’t anticipate our internationalized institutions or scale of global activity. The fact that there are now more than 435,000 students from overseas studying at UK universities and not a greatly smaller number studying for UK HE qualifications in other countries is a most remarkable transformation.

Moreover, whilst we might in the UK fret about mergers and takeovers and whether or not to establish campuses overseas in the meantime dozens of institutions from other parts of the world are establishing outposts and branches in the UK (mainly in London). Higher education is very much a global activity now.

What does the future hold?

So that was then and now, but what of the future? Predicting the future in higher education is of course a mug’s game. You can never win. However, it is difficult to resist the opportunity to take part.

So in a completely flawed and unscientific attempt to set out what might happen I offer four possible versions of the future:

The Wild West

Version 1 is the Wild West. It starts with the OFT smashing its way through our cozy higher education set up and leads to takeovers, merger mania and chaos with lots of institutions being allowed to go to the wall and many more private for-profit institutions springing up all over the place (every supermarket has one).

Government removes all attempts to manage the system and there is no meaningful  regulation. The QAA is abolished, no need for any funding councils and there are no more committees of the great and good to pontificate on higher education. Anyone can set up and call themselves a university but in this environment only the richest, strongest and nastiest survive.

It’s the ultimate free market. In other words, higher education anarchy.

Private Frazer

Private Frazer scenario

Private Frazer scenario

Version 2 means that, unfortunately, we’re all doomed (which was Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer’s famous but rarely deployed catch phrase). The MOOC providers will win and kill most traditional universities. As Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicted a few years ago there will be only 10 universities left in the world in 50 years’ time. Of course universities only have themselves to blame having nurtured, supported and then allowed the MOOC providers to disrupt the system. So if there are only going to be 10 around the world how many will be left in the UK? Oxford? Cambridge? The Open University?

(Fortunately this scenario is looking quite unlikely, Thrun is rapidly recanting and it could be that the MOOC bubble is already bursting.)

Regulated mediocrity

Version 3 represents something of a straightjacket with a levelling down to leave us with lots of rather similar universities, all beset and overwhelmed with ludicrously excessive bureaucracy designed to keep every stakeholder happy. We have ever more regulation overseen by a host of super-regulators, meta-regulators and regional regulators. It feels a bit like every aspect of university life is directly governed by the QAA.

Moreover, immigration regulations mean there are next to no international students and there are rigid targets for everything from widening participation to detailed specification of class contact hours, SSRs, assessment turnaround times, exam duration, graduation ticket fees and academic dress.

Students have more information available to them than has previously been written in all of human history and spend substantially more time filling in surveys on their experiences than undertaking any learning.

All too credible I fear.

Wildflower meadow

The final version is something a bit closer to a higher education ideal (relative to all of the others that is). It offers a lightly regulated and managed environment, well-tended, all collegial and harmonious. Many different flowers bloom and institutions co-exist in a state of delightful equilibrium. There is a perfect balance between teaching and research, the widening participation job is done and there is an optimal balance of different kinds of institution with different missions.

This is the future (we hope)

This is the future (we hope)

Some universities come and go, some last, some spread their wings but overall there is a perfect balance between market and regulation. It really is higher education nirvana.

Into uncharted territory

It is though very unclear what the future holds. Monsters, in the form of as yet unknown Ministers for Universities, and wild uncharted lands await. But we could do worse than note some more words of wisdom from half a century ago from Robbins:

The fundamental question that we have to answer is whether a system of higher education in the sense in which we have used the word ‘system’ is desirable. As we have said, it is misleading to speak as if there were already a system in this sense. Higher education has not been planned as a whole or developed within a framework consciously devised to promote harmonious evolution. What system there is has come about as the result of a series of particular initiatives, concerned with particular needs and particular situations, and there is no way of dealing conveniently with all the problems common to higher education as a whole.

Our point is that the central decisions that have to be made should be coherent and take account of the interests of all sectors of higher education, and that decentralised initiative – and we hope there will always be much of this – should be inspired by common principles.

Wise words?

Unfortunately, we couldn’t just leave it there. The whole series of Robbins quotes offered during this event (and bandied around more widely) led me to speculate on the possibility of a new parlour game which tested whether one was reading a real Robbins quote or a made up one.  If you can bear it then do see the earlier post on this great new game the whole faculty can play: Robbins or Bobbins?

With the most profound apologies to Lord Robbins and all of his great works.

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.

International agents: regulation required?

Do we need to regulate universities use of international recruitment agents?

A new publication from the Leadership Foundation, called Using International Recruitment Agents: Risks and Regulation? argues that we do need more regulation in this area. It’s an interesting report on an important area of activity:

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The expansion of the international student market has coincided with a ‘dramatic proliferation’ of universities using agents to recruit international students. This practice is controversial due to the apparent conflict of interest between prospecting for students for a particular university, and advising students on that university’s suitability. Our paper analyses the challenges that arise from using agents. We find that there are examples of unethical practice, such as misselling and financial fraud. Yet we also explore the services that agents provide to students and universities, and find that they cannot easily be replicated by organisations that do not face the same inherent conflict of interest. The paper goes on to discuss the current picture in terms of regulation, both in the UK and further afield, and a range of other regulatory options. We conclude by recommending that the UK moves towards a sector-wide system of self-regulation to improve the quality of advice to potential students and reduce the risk of unethical practice.

This proposal though is to set up an organisation to regulate universities use of agents, linked to Highly Trusted Status (required for international student recruitment), and drawing on the sector’s experience of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (the OIA, the independent ombudsman which deals with unresolved complaints from students about their universities).

ukba_pass

According to the paper this new organisation would establish “ethical principles which institutions would have to comply with in order to recruit international students”, would licence agents and would also adjudicate on complaints made by students.

Universities need to and should behave ethically in recruiting international students. As the paper notes there aren’t any better alternatives to using agents and simply arguing for discontinuing use of them is not going to work. Institutions though should be transparent about agent arrangements and the fees they are paid (as the University of Nottingham has done) and respond properly to complaints.

However, we really do not need a new regulatory body to do this. At a time of ever more regulation plus the impositons of the UKBA and the challenging and costly bureaucracy around international student visas, the last thing universities need is self-imposed costly and restrictive regulation.

So, interesting report but no thanks.

Higher Ed data – way too much information

Tackling the surfeit of data

I’ve written before here about Higher Education regulation (see for example this general commentary and this post on information provision) and the excess of information provision available to prospective students.

It’s pleasing therefore to see that HEFCE is undertaking a review of providing information about higher education. The aims of the review are set out as follows:

The review will aim to ensure that:

  • wherever possible, the different elements of the provision of information fall within a coherent framework, across UK institutions
  • we gather sound evidence to help us form the future information
  • the outcomes of different mechanisms suit the issues they are designed to address
  • information is usable and accessible, and that we are able to make the best use of technology to facilitate this in the future.

The review will reflect on how much this area of our work costs the public purse. It will also consider the role of a range of organisations in providing independent, contextualised, robust, comparable and usable information.

unistats latin

There’s plenty more where this came from

The review will look at the purpose and use of NSS results, at the Unistats site and the Key Information Set data as well as the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (Delhe) survey. It is also going to examine how this data is used by prospective students. If all goes well this should be an extremely valuable piece of work and will, it is to be hoped, result in a significant reduction in the quantity of data collected and published (and the bureaucratic burden on universities) in favour of an improvement in the quality of information available to applicants.

A long way to go but let’s hope that the group overseeing the work, the Higher Education Public Information Steering Group (HEPISG, from which acronym I’m afraid I still derive puerile amusement) will do its job well and we will see some real change in this area.

Reducing University Regulation in Australia

“Red tape strangling universities must be cut”

A recently released report in Australia following a review of higher education regulation has found that an “unnecessarily heavy reporting burden” had been imposed on higher education providers by the quality agency and government.

A report in University World News notes the irony in the fact that a paper aimed at reducing red tape is 99 pages long. The piece also observes that the report’s conclusions, that the higher education sector is over-regulated and that reducing the burden on universities is sorely needed, have been widely welcomed:

The report says the quality agency had been established in an “already crowded regulatory environment”, and it proposes a reduction in its functions and the number of its commissioners. It says the minister should issue a direction to the agency’s chief executive regarding allocation of resources so that the agency can accredit courses more quickly.

Red Tape 1

The report says there should also be a reduction in duplication across the various acts that govern university regulation and a better way of improving information sharing across agencies, to reduce the need for universities to report the same information multiple times to various bodies.

In addition, the report proposes the establishment of an overarching advisory council to consult with stakeholders and advise the minister, and calls for the speedy implementation of a single national higher education data collection system.

However, it may be some time before there is progress with this agenda. With major political change underway in Australia following the recent election it is possible that reducing higher education regulation may not to top of the new government’s priorities.

The Office of Fair Trading targets universities

The OFT is investigating universities’ terms and conditions.

The Office of Fair Trading, apparently at the request of the National Union of Students, has started an investigation into whether some of the sanctions imposed by universities on students, which may prevent them from progressing or graduating if they owe the university money, are unfair in relation to consumer protection legislation:

The OFT has opened an investigation under the Enterprise Act 2002 considering the terms and conditions used by some universities to prevent students from graduating or enrolling onto the next academic year or using university facilities if they owe monies to the university which relate to non-academic debts such as for accommodation or childcare, or if they engage in conduct (unrelated to academic performance) of which the university disapproves. It is considering whether such contract terms and/or practices breach the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and certain other consumer protection legislation.

index

As reported in the Independent the NUS is quite keen on this:

The NUS vice president for Welfare Colum McGuire said: “This has been on our radar for a while and we’ve been hoping to get some action taken. We’re really excited for the full investigation.” McQuire continued: “This came to our attention from students and unions across the country.”

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It will be particularly important that the OFT gets a clear view on the issue of “non-academic debts” some of which, whilst they may not be explicitly academic in nature, are nevertheless inextricably linked to a student’s whole university experience. The OFT will also want to learn more about the ways in which conduct “unrelated to academic performance” can sometimes have a profound and negative impact on university life and is therefore not merely a matter of disapproval.

Writing in Outlaw.com, Pinsent Masons’ legal blog, Nicola Buchanan is pretty sure that the OFT will find universities’ actions wanting and that we will need to look at alternative approaches:

The OFT will publish initial findings in October and are likely to find the withholding of degrees for non-academic debt unfair. Universities should start planning now, and should take a leaf out of commercial organisations’ books if they are to find new and effective ways to recover non-academic debt.

So we will see where the investigation goes. The cautionary note in all of this though is really “be careful what you wish for” as the alternatives to the current set up may be far less pleasant for all concerned as Gary Attle has observed in Fusion, the Mills and Reeve blog:

We do wonder whether there may be another law at work here, namely the law of unintended consequences. What will be the consequences if universities, as academic communities, are constrained in using self-help measures in appropriate situations to manage their financial responsibilities. Will it be in the interests of students if universities are forced to resort instead to other credit control measures and debt collection procedures like commercial businesses and landlords?

Surely no-one wants to end up here?

Reducing regulation in Australia

But will regulatory review deliver?

A story in Inside Higher Ed notes that the Australian government is considering cutting higher education regulation. A previous post noted the woeful track record of UK governments in reducing the regulatory burden on universities so it will be interesting to see if Australia makes more progress:

In a radical policy change, Australia’s Tertiary Education Minister, Craig Emerson, is this week releasing a new approach to quality control that meets university demands for a lighter regulatory burden and could gut Labor’s own creation, the Tertiary Education Quality Assurance Agency.

More or less?

More or less?


While Emerson is announcing only a regulatory review, measures included in the announcement make it clear he has heard and understood the concerns of Universities Australia and the Group of Eight, and accepts that an estimated $280 million in annual compliance costs for universities to report to government is unacceptable. “The review will ensure more of the government’s record investment is directed at student tuition than administration,” he planned to say.

In immediate measures Emerson will announce rationalizations of reports required by his department and says the departmental secretary, Don Russell, will write to the chief commissioner of the quality assurance agency, Carol Nicoll, to “seek advice about any immediate actions that can be taken to ameliorate concerns in the sector about red tape.”

It is just a review in the first instance but it does look like everyone wants to make changes. It will be interesting to see if the Australian sector is more successful in reducing the regulatory burden than we have been in the UK.

Regulation without legislation

Not a campaign slogan but the next steps in HE regulatory change from HEFCE

Something of a surprise announcement from HEFCE on new changes to HE regulation. The changes follow a written Ministerial statement from David Willetts. The changes cover a lot of ground:

The success of higher education in England is underpinned by the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and the new arrangements build on these strong foundations. The Government has asked HEFCE and the Regulatory Partnership Group (RPG) to implement them within existing legislation, while recognising that a new legislative framework will be required in the longer term.

The Operating Framework - part of the regulatory framework governing HE

The Operating Framework – part of the regulatory framework governing HE

Working in partnership with the RPG, HEFCE is asked to take on a regulatory oversight and coordination role. HEFCE is leading work on a number of strands of the new arrangements:

  • developing a register of higher education provision in England
  • consulting on proposed revisions to HEFCE’s Financial Memorandum
  • operating of a new system of specific-course designation for alternative providers
  • implementing further changes to student number controls, including extending them to alternative providers from 2014-15.

The Government has announced that it intends to delegate to HEFCE responsibility for the process of approving designation of HEFCE-funded universities and colleges, and for providing assurance that the agreed terms and conditions are met. Eligible courses at these institutions are and will continue to be designated automatically, allowing students to access student support. Institutions will not be required to undergo a separate designation process. This means that in practice there will be little change for existing institutions, and no additional administrative burden.

This last piece is a critical one. Whilst there are new requirements on alternative providers it is claimed there will be no extra burden on universities. To achieve this the changes to the Financial Memorandum will need to be modest. And it is not at all clear that any of these changes will leave us with a reduction in regulation. At some point the focus of higher regulation partnership working moved from seeking to reduce the burden on institutions to concentrating “on policy, strategic and operational issues arising from the development of the new funding and regulatory regime for higher education.” This is a matter of significant concern given the many competitive and regulatory pressures universities are under. So whatever happens in this latest iteration it is vital that the promise of no additional administrative burden is delivered. Then we can move to actually reducing the level of regulation.

A higher education report to remember?

Or not much of an impact?

It’s a month or so now since the publication of the IPPR report on securing the future of higher education in England.

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It was a big report based on a considerable amount of work by a group headed by Nigel Thrift. But, despite an initial flurry, it doesn’t seem to have had much an impact. 23 recommendations covered a number of funding issues but also postgraduate matters, teaching, admissions, regulation, R&D and student visas.

The one recommendation which seems to have gathered more interest than any others (at least in the mainstream press) is the proposal to allow large FE colleges which already have degree awarding powers to apply to use the the title ‘Polytechnic’. According to BBC News the report wanted to ‘bring back polytechnics’ with the title representing a “mark of vocational excellence”:

Nigel Thrift, chairman of the commission and Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University said the revival of polytechnics “would signal that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system”.

The first 30 polytechnics opened in the 1960s “in an attempt to ensure working-class communities benefited” from the expansion of higher education, say the authors.

Unlike universities “polytechnics tended to serve their local communities and offered more vocational-oriented qualifications, accredited by professional bodies”.

But by the early 1990s changes to the labour market meant academic qualifications were seen as the best route to a good job, says the study.

So in 1992 the government turned the polytechnics into ‘new universities’. Now almost half of school leavers go to university. The downside, according to the report, was that a “distinctive role for higher vocational learning was arguably lost”.

The authors say reviving polytechnic status would give vocational learning a much needed boost in an economy which suffers from “significant shortages” of technical skills.

It’s an intriguing and rather striking proposal. But it is not clear that it is really offering anything meaningful in terms of vocational education. Rather it looks like a perpetuation of inflationary designations in higher education following the decision last year to allow very small HEIs to become universities.

On the plus side it is effectively a cost-free recommendation.

But the chances of this or indeed many of the other recommendations in the report having much impact look slight. So it doesn’t exactly have the feel of a Robbins or a Dearing. But perhaps it is a bit too early to tell

Delivering better higher education data?

Another attempt to clean up HE data.

A previous post on the HE regulatory landscape noted the challenge of sorting out the massive range of data reporting required of universities – 550 different reporting requirements – which entailed a major programme of work. A year later things have moved on it seems and we now have the Higher Education Data & Information Improvement Programme. The rather infelicitously entitled HEDIIP is meant to address at least some of these issues:

The Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme (HEDIIP) is being established to enhance the arrangements for the collection, sharing and dissemination of data and information about the HE system.

This follows the challenges set out in paragraph 6.22 of the BIS White Paper Students at the Heart of the System which called for the HE information landscape to be redesigned “in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists, and results in timelier and more relevant data.”

This work has been overseen by the Regulatory Partnership Group and HEDIIP is now being established to carry forward a programme of changes to build a more coherent, responsive and less burdensome information landscape.

There is a desperate need to sort out the regulatory landscape. Will this new initiative make a difference? Time will tell but there is really very little to go on here as yet and a solitary tweet in 10 weeks does not auger well either.