Hepi thanks Andy Westwood for becoming the first guest blogger on the new Hepi website.
Higher education is facing the biggest shake up of agencies and quangos for over twenty years. Politicians, think tanks and commissions are queueing up to create new organisations in HE and to simplify what looks like extraordinary levels of complexity to any outsider. The Office for Fair Trading is the latest, but the Higher Education Commission, the IPPR and of course Lord Browne have said the same. Politicians of all parties are asking how to redesign and simplify the regulatory landscape.
Lord Browne recommended a single regulator – a model that politicians, keen on symmetry and neatness, are often drawn towards. The idea of HEFCE as the lead regulator emerged in the current Government’s higher education white paper, though with no sign of a bill to ultimately enshrine such a role. As the sector becomes more like a market, the arguments for a market-like regulator such as an Ofcom or Ofgem intensify.
But sector-owned regulation is one of the big things that distinguishes the different policy frameworks in higher and further education. It goes to the heart of peer review – the idea that we in higher education are best placed to determine what is good and what is not. In HE we tend to take it for granted – but it’s a fundamental part of the sector if not explicitly a part of the autonomy that we routinely defend. Cuts to HEFCE spending in this year and next, alongside forthcoming legislation, could threaten its existence.
So what do we want? How should we pay for it? What should we defend? It is a maxim that form should follow function and that’s a good place to start. What are they key things that we want to ‘own’ – what can be included in a highly-trusted, self-regulating sector?
Sector-owned ‘self regulation’ via organisations like the QAA, UCAS, HESA – even the sector’s role in organisations like HEFCE and the OIA – are increasingly in question. We may be sleepwalking into a position where we give up sector ownership and find ourselves with a more external model of quality and inspection – something worryingly like an OFSTED for HE. Please let’s think about this now and try and avoid that at least?
Wholly agree that this is a situation we want to avoid. I think it is interesting that you put ‘self regulation’ in inverted commas – the current and emerging regime really doesn’t feel like it but does seem pretty externally driven (to institutions that is). Looking back, I think one of the reasons we are in what already feels like a highly over-regulated sector is that the threat of an ‘OFSTED for HE’ has often been used as a rationale for introducing what looks like a slightly more benign set of regulatory activities. In other words the sector has been willing to accept additional regulation for fear of worse. My fear here is not that we sleepwalk into something but rather that our enthusiasm for seeking a ‘level playing field’ ends up delivering even more and less welcome regulation, perhaps even the OFSTED-type model envisaged here.
I think that rumours of quango death are greatly exaggerated! The QAA, for instance, are a UK wide body funded by all four home nations to maintain education quality. For England, say, to go it alone, would require a new England-only arrangement whilst the QAA also continues to exist to serve other nations. And as the QAA is funded by institutional subscriptions it would require all institutions to support the change.
Many sector bodies are owned by the UUK/GuildHE as you know, which adds another layer of permissions to the mix. For a government that seems to struggle with the basics of funding and legislative backing, such a complex move in the last days of this parliament would be an unusual choice to say the leaset.
David Kernohan (above) is always astute and incisive, but I am wary of the argument – where politics and money are concerned – that change would be too difficult because too many bodies would need to fall in line. Removing one source of funding may be the first domino that creates just such a cascade.
For instance, let us suppose HEFCE were to withdraw all or a large proportion of its funding from a key quango – QAA, say – in favour of some other approach such as either taking greater centralised regulatory control on itself perhaps, or saying that the sector should pay for its own quality assurance through a more liberalised, but incentivised, subscription model. The funding bodies in the other nations would be unlikely to prop up the existing form of the QAA if it suddenly cost them several times the amount to do so. What would then happen to revenue from subscriptions would depend on (a) the value proposition of the QAA to its HEI members and (b) any incentive HEFCE or the market might create to force, urge or encourage HEIs to feel they need to subscribe.
Neither Andy nor Paul specifically mentions one quango which doesn’t serve a regulatory role as such, but which preserves standards in a way that suits the HE sector very well – allowing each institution its own autonomy using more carrot than stick. I’m thinking of the HEA (of which I’m proud to be a Board Director): the UK Professional Standards Framework, the accreditation of Fellows, and the PTES and PRES surveys, for example, all provide ways for HEIs to identify weaknesses, enhance performance where excellence is lacking, and demonstrate it where it exists excellence (and could, I feel, be used more to expose failures too).
It is right not to want a top-down OFSTED-style approach in HE (we might as do away with all academic autonomy), but we do need to find common ways of recognising strengths and correcting weakness. Any bodies, whether they’re wielding sticks or carrots (and both are useful), need to be sufficiently led by the sector to be a part of it, but not owned by it such that their independence is compromised. To that end, central funding – or at least largely central funding – seems an inescapable imperative for a good regulatory and enhancement landscape.
Meanwhile, a single body would find it hard to wield both many sticks and carrots simultaneously, especially in a diverse and diversifying sector. That is why we have different voices speaking up for different concerns (the ECU on equality, the HEA on teaching and learning, HESA on data transparency, etc). The hope must be that, in a grown-up sector – that is not like schools, hospitals, energy supply or banking – the multiplicity of voices keeps tugging HEIs broadly into a zone of sufficiency. It’s how it’s worked for quite a while, with impressive results.
For that reason, I hope David is right that the line of dominoes will not tumble, but Osborne has poked hard at the first one with the end of an axe.
I am not sure I agree that ‘symmetry and neatness’ are important here. Effectiveness is. The government wants to see ‘students at the heart of the system’. Despite the many merits of the current regulatory framework, we do not want further shots across our bows from the new Competition and Markets Authority (OFT).
The multiplicity of regulatory voices may be sign of a mature sector, but to the uninitiated it could appear perplexing. The best method of avoiding a regulatory settlement imposed from outside the sector, is to ensure that students can access that regulatory framework simply, and that is can be shown to be effective.
Within our institutions we commonly implement one-stop-shops for student services, but we lack the equivalent at national level. Perhaps now is the moment for the Regulatory Partnership Group and its official observers to invest in a national one-stop-shop for students to access the regulatory framework that already exists to support them?