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Higher education co-regulation: Where do we go from here?

  • 28 August 2018
  • By Professor David Phoenix

This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Professor David Phoenix OBE, Chair of MillionPlus and Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University.

Should we regulate – or co-regulate – higher education?

Well, the Office for Students is certainly a regulator, there is little doubt about that. But is the OfS just the same as any other: an Ofwat or Ofgem but for higher education rather than water or electricity?

Perception and substance

The advent of the Office for Students has genuinely changed the oversight of higher education – here, perception is reality. Funders, such as HEFCE, looked at provision but the OfS regulates for students – a real difference certainly. It is right that students and the student interest should take centre stage. Students should be protected if things go badly wrong, and it is right that the regulator positions itself as the champion of the student consumer, especially if there are to be more smaller providers.

But universities are not the same as water companies or a rail franchise. Universities collectively agree common standards on quality in consultation with students, quality bodies and funders / regulators – and award their own degrees. This is the longstanding and internationally-regarded model of co-regulation. There is a risk in the process of creating the new regulator for this new market that much of what universities currently do well will be lost.

It may seem to some to be splitting hairs to add ‘co-’ before a word – but fundamental principles count in these matters. Co-regulation is often misinterpreted as a plea for selfregulation, a position no serious figure in the HE sector is seeking or believes would be appropriate.

Yet, as my colleague Greg Walker wrote in June, there is a growing risk that the system of co-regulation becomes buried and lost. This might likely happen by a process of gradual erosion rather than a once-for-all change. This would undermine the international reputation for excellence that UK higher education enjoys, which is partly down to this shared approach to developing, managing and assessing quality assurance processes in universities and other providers. Furthermore, it is this approach that has allowed universities to innovate and enhance their approach in teaching and to bring on stream new modes of delivery and new disciplines. Rowing back on this legacy of strong performance underpinned by co-regulation would certainly undermine the student interest.

A challenge will be for the Office for Students to develop ways to manage an extreme diversity of higher education providers within a short period of time. Despite the laudable promise of a ‘risk-based’ approach, the sheer pressure of dealing with 600 or more higher education providers – perhaps rising to more than a thousand by 2025 – might drive the regulator more towards a ‘one-size fits most’ approach. Eliding the sort of quality assessment approach required for a provider with a few dozen students and little track record in awarding degrees with that required for a large established university with a sound history of provision might be one way in which this whittling away could take place. When we talk about a risk-based approach this must recognise the history, standing and success of each institution.

Responsibility, not exceptionalism

This is not a plea for a form of university ‘exceptionalism’, just a recognition that providers with decades-long track-records of awarding degrees should collectively retain a core responsibility to assure quality and standards. The presence of the new regulator is a necessary and additional ‘check’ in the system, given the growing range of providers. Importantly, its decisions will be based on advice provided by the UK’s widely-respected independent quality body, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). But we must ensure that this check is not a fundamental shift of responsibility away from a degree-awarding university toward a centralised government body.

Currently universities are not organs of the state; they are generally independent charities founded to promote the public good through teaching, research and knowledge exchange. Small, and perhaps unintended, steps away from the spirit and practice of co-regulation can already be seen in the move to give Ofsted the role of quality assuring Level 4 and 5 qualifications in apprenticeship standards, or looking to develop a ‘register of examiners’. It is something to which the sector needs to be attuned.

Managing partisan pressures

The political pressures faced by the Office for Students will loom large. Politicians can find it difficult to resist media headlines to ‘do something’ about this or that issue. The latest publicity about degree classifications has led to proposals that would fundamentally undermine the architecture of UK higher education standards. The recommendations from Reform in June to establish a new quango to decide assessment practices and mandate standardised national university examinations tells us quite how misunderstood universities can be in the media and think-tank milieus.

Combatting misunderstandings is important; if we don’t, universities may be viewed as ‘grown-up’ versions of schools, most of which are still state bodies. It is essential therefore that universities and their leaders actively engage with wider society to regain ground and trust, so we can combat the threat to the autonomy and innovation that has enabled UK higher education to be among the best in the world.

Universities need to be fleet-of-foot and able to change and innovate in a fast-paced international HE environment. A monolithic, statist approach to quality issues in England will make such adaptation impossible. We need to do what we can to ensure that co-regulation remains the basis of the work conducted by the QAA and the Office for Students on quality and standards.

These are not Cassandra-like warnings of an apocalyptic fate, just a reminder of the strengths of our current co-regulatory system and the risks of eroding it over time. Let us build on what we do well, not go back to the drawing board on practices that fit with the UK’s internationally-applauded system of higher education quality assurance. For universities to continue to thrive, we need continued recognition of autonomy and regulation that recognises the differences among providers.


  1. albert wright says:

    A very timely comment to add to the current review of Higher Education but I am unable to support the demand / request for the current level of “University Autonomy” to continue for all.

    In my opinion there are already too many Universities and two many University students with too much public money being spent on the sector.

    The Professor is right to point out the history of Universities in the UK but in so doing he highlights the fact that many of the current institutions labelled as Universities are some distance away from Oxbridge and many members of the Russell Group in terms of ethos, values, quality and teaching.

    Several HE institutions are already “‘grown-up’ versions of schools” in that over 80% of their income comes from the state / public sector, their research activity is minimal and the range of courses relatively narrow.

    We need to recognise the wide diversity that already exists under the Umbrella of University and take appropriate action, starting with a “sub division” of the sector into its component parts.

    To allow all institutions operating under the name of University the same rights is wrong.

    1. Mike Ratcliffe says:

      This may be why the OfS has been talking about a ‘risk-based’ approach.

      However, your assumption that all universities have to be exactly alike needs to be challenged. We have different types of university – the reason we have a strong sector is that we developed a new kind of university, with a focus on applied research, vocational courses and catering to the needs of local students who lived at home (these were the civic universities in the first half of the twentieth century).

      Sub-dividing won’t work – universities are each a different mix, the flavours mixing in different levels, but few being so strongly of one kind that it dominates. There is one area where this is true: big science, where the bulk of research funds go, but that doesn’t mean that other universities can’t teach in these areas. As an example, the most highly regulated subject area (Medicine) is successfully expanding the number of medical schools.

  2. Gordon Dent says:

    >> The recommendations from Reform in June to establish a new quango to decide assessment practices and mandate standardised national university examinations tells us quite how misunderstood universities can be in the media and think-tank milieus. <<

    True, but universities seem hell-bent on provoking this kind of reaction. Poor assessment practice is widespread (poorly constructed questions, marking guidelines that are impossible to apply consistently, assessments that sample very narrow areas of the curriculum and therefore encourage strategic learning-to-the-test, etc., etc.) and many institutions' degree classification algorithms are outrageous, allowing failing students to gain honours degrees and/or students with average module marks in the 2ii/low-2i range to graduate with first-class honours by excluding up to a quarter of credits from the calculation and repeatedly rounding up of marks. I have no confidence at all that an honours degree gives any reliable indication of a gradaute's academic ability, and I'm an insider. I can fully understand why outsiders would think the system has no merit and needs to be thrown away. Perhaps if universities expended some effort on improving practice rather than on elaborate PR-driven responses to try to persuade people that everything's fine (when it very obviously isn't), we might get some support from at least the small number of rational people in the media and ragulators. (I accept that there aren't any rational people in think-tanks.)

    Because it's vital to maintaining a lively and responsive HE sector that institutions should be able to innovate with programmes in niche and/or cross-disciplinary areas, without having to conform to national rules for a limited number of subject areas. The reforms being proposed would make it impossible to develop programmes in vital areas like biotechnology, for example, as they could never conform to national standards for the absurdly broad subject area of biology. We've already lost important subjects at A-level – like human biology – owing first to unrealistic attempts to align grade boundaries (meaning that schools wouldn't enter students for them) and then to their simply being abolished because they didn't fit one maniac's view of what a "traditional" education system should look like. The impact of this kind of measure on the range of programmes that could be offered by HE would be disastrous. But please understand that think-tanks – and the majority of the media – don't care how severely HE is damaged, or even if it's destroyed: they don't understand it and never will. If we keep waving a dysfunctional assessments & grading system in front of them and insisting that it's all tickety-boo we can't be surprised when they take it out of our hands and force something even worse on us because it appeals to the mass ignorance that is labelled "common sense".

  3. Albert Wright says:

    I believe in sub division of the sector because it is then easier to achieve diversity, promote “sector excellence “ and deal more appropriately with individual institutions.
    I am all for a group of Universities that are:
    1 National excellence centres for specific subject areas
    2 Regional/ Local centres for a range of subjects that are taught to primarily local residents
    3 Groups of Universities with a focus on Research
    4 Focus on Post Graduate Study

    Sub divisions like this will help when setting clear objectives and allocating public resources

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