HEPI has published a new policy paper, Protecting the public interest in higher education, by Bill Rammell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and the Minister for Further and Higher Education (2005-08) in the last Labour Government.

The proposals in the paper include:

  • changes to the new Office for Students to take greater account of the public interest;
  • tighter restrictions on obtaining degree-awarding powers and university title; and
  • broader recognition of the civic benefits of higher education.

Bill Rammell said:

‘The Government’s focus on market competition in higher education is too narrow and restrictive. It ignores the fundamental role of universities in serving the public interest and contributing to a vibrant civil society.

‘The Higher Education and Research Bill does not do enough to protect the quality of students’ education, the sustainability of the system and the international reputation of the sector.

‘Universities engage with the public by spreading knowledge, supporting public debate and building the civic capabilities of students. There is going to be too much emphasis on competition and not enough on these real public benefits.’

Nick Hillman, Director of the HEPI, said:

‘Everyone accepts our university system is genuinely world class. That is down to the quality of research, the breadth of the student experience and the depth of engagement with local communities. But such strengths cannot be taken for granted.

‘Some of the changes on the horizon may make it harder for universities to justify their public roles. Yet the divisions in society highlighted by the Brexit vote mean we need them to engage with wider society more than ever before.

‘Major pieces of higher education legislation tend to arrive less than once a decade. So it is vital that we do not miss the opportunity offered by the current Higher Education and Research Bill to protect and strengthen the public role of all higher education institutions.’

Notes for editors:

Bill Rammell makes 14 key recommendations in his HEPI Paper:

  1. The HERB should be amended to include a duty on the OfS to have due regard to the public interest in its regulation of providers and to make due consideration of the sustainability and efficacy of the sector as a whole in operating in the public interest when carrying out its activities.
  2. Each provider should be asked to designate a set of ‘publics’ whom it seeks to engage, and give an indication of the methods by which it fosters public debate and engagement with those publics.
  3. The OfS should be empowered to undertake and publish a periodic review on the extent to which the public interest is both safeguarded and advanced through the public interest infrastructure.
  4. The Government should solicit advice from QAA and international equivalents on how its proposals to fast-track degree-awarding powers and university title would be perceived internationally and whether it is in line with international standards.
  5. Where a provider has no track record of provision, its offer should be delivered in partnership with a validating provider for at least three years, followed by a further three years during which it can only hold degree-awarding powers on a probationary basis.
  6. Where a provider has a track record abroad, QAA should be tasked to work with equivalent national quality bodies internationally to judge the comparability of quality and standards in the new provider’s country of origin.
  7. A cross-sector working group should be convened to examine the opportunities for measuring and recognising personal development and citizenship as an outcome of higher education, and make recommendations to the OfS on how to incorporate this formally into the regulatory architecture.
  8. Provision for the collective student voice should be among the conditions set for entry to the register of providers, and effective regulation of students’ unions (or their equivalent) should be retained on the list of public interest principles applicable to the governance of higher education providers.
  9. Chapter B4 of the UK Quality Code should be updated to place an expectation on providers to make appropriate provision to enable students to achieve their civic potential in addition to their academic, personal and professional potential.
  10. TEF criteria should be more generous in enabling universities, in partnership with students’ unions, to articulate and evidence their development of co-curricular and extra-curricular learning environments that promote the personal and civic development of students.
  11. A credit framework should be developed to recognise co-curricular and extra-curricular activities as part of the quality regime.
  12. The OfS should be empowered to assess system-level capacity and support sector-level interventions to enable collaborative strategic development across the sector where there is a public interest case for undertaking this work.
  13. The OfS should be required to take a view on the market viability of new providers as well as their capability to provide a quality offer. New providers should be required to provide an assessment of market demand for their product.
  14. The OfS should undertake regularly to audit the spread and diversity of provision across the country and make recommendations for addressing where markets remain underdeveloped in overall provision, in specific subject areas or in the balance of specialist to pluralist providers in any part of the country.