With the Government abandoning plans to legislate for a new system of regulation for HE in England in 2011, it had to seek to regulate the sector using existing mechanisms. The Operating Framework (OF) published by HEFCE in July 2013 describes the mechanisms it proposes to use. In a critical analysis of the new framework, the HEPI report’s authors, Professor Roger Brown, Professor of HE Policy at Liverpool Hope University and Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI’s Director, argue that there are major difficulties with the OF as a way of instilling full stakeholder confidence in the quality and viability of English high education. Specifically:
- There are a large number of regulators but the framework has some major gaps in its coverage, not least the reliance on a flawed system of institutional governance
- There are significant uncertainties over the regulators’ powers to ensure that the framework is effective
- The reliance on a risk-based approach to regulation, particularly in a fast-changing competitive environment (discussed in detail in HEPI Occasional Report 3: The risks of risk-based regulation: the regulatory challenges of the higher education White Paper for England by Roger King, Visiting Professor, School of Management, University of Bath)
- There are also major issues over accountability for the framework and regulatory independence. Who will take overall responsibility for the health of the sector and with both HEFC and the QAA de-facto agencies of government, what institutional autonomy is there for the OF?
The report’s authors go on to sketch out an alternative model of regulation, the key components of which are:
- Separation of the responsibility for regulation from the responsibility for funding. A new funding agency would take over the funding responsibilities of HEFCE and the SLC, and the new regulatory agency would discharge the functions being carried out by or on behalf of the main current regulators. Each agency would be placed under a duty to cooperate with the other, with both agencies subject to a meta review by Parliament 5 years after commencing operations and then every 10 years
- The funding agency would continue to be appointed by and report to the Government. The regulatory agency – the Office for Higher Education or OFHE – would be appointed by and report to Parliament (on the model of the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s office). The OFHE would be funded through a levy on all providers pro rata to institutional turnover
- Establishment of a level-playing field for accreditation with the accreditation criteria set out in a single comprehensive framework that would be applied in a consistent and fair manner across all providers, levels and categories of provision. Accreditation would cover all aspects of institutional activity relevant to student education and would ensure that institutions met common minimum standards of quality, viability and good governance.
The authors argue that such a system has a number of advantages over the OF: it clarifies and simplifies the key state responsibilities for higher education in England; it streamlines regulatory functions and responsibilities, avoiding the role conflicts inherent in the Government’s original proposals; and by being non selective, avoids the risks inherent in a risk-based approach. In their conclusion, Brown and Bekhradnia argue: “Many will see disadvantages in the proposed new arrangements, and no doubt the details – such as the precise requirements for accreditation – could be reviewed. The critical thing though will be to put in place a mechanism to ensure the adequate regulation of the whole new and expanding sector, and to ensure separation of the duty to regulate and the duty to fund.”
A copy of HEPI Report (63) The Future Regulation of Higher Education in England by Professor Roger Brown and Bahram Bekhradnia is available for download here