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?