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 self–regulation, 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.