This HEPI blog is the first of a two-part series, kindly authored by Dr Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham. This article represents the personal view of the author.
A New Framework
The higher education regulatory burden is already too great and yet is still growing. At a time of limited funding for universities and colleges and a declining unit of resource, the sector can ill afford the growing cost of regulation. Short term changes to legislation are unlikely. Therefore it is suggested that new principles for the assurance of quality and standards be established, a new UK-wide regulatory agency is established and a range of costly and burdensome regulatory activities be ended.
How Did We End Up Here?
England’s Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) has not worked as intended; the original aspirations for the legislation have been found to be unhelpfully focused on expanding the diversity of HE providers rather than, as was originally promised, proportional and risk-based regulation of an already over-burdened sector. Moreover, the additional impetus given to the divergence of regulatory arrangements within the nations of the UK by the departure of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) from its role as Designated Quality Body (DQB) in England has highlighted the need for greater national alignment across the sector.
Since 2017 the regulatory regime has shifted everything to being a low trust environment, one which is very expensive and does little to improve the quality of provision, help students, support graduate achievement or burnish the international reputation of one of the country’s outstanding export success stories. This is not about criticism of the Office for Students (the OfS), the QAA or any other sector agency. Rather it is a recognition that bold reform is required to regulation, including to the assurance of quality and standards, if the quality and standard of higher education is to be sustained not undermined. Moreover, there is a case to rationalise the patchwork of higher education agencies in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness. A review of HERA is on the way but any minor modifications resulting are not going to be sufficient to address these issues.
The Ever-Growing Burden of Regulation
The growth in regulation remains a significant problem for our sector, especially in England where the consequences of HERA have led to a major and continuing increase in regulatory burden. As the burden continues to grow, the cost of regulation itself and the expense for universities and colleges of complying with it creeps ever closer to the cost of the activity being regulated. The cure to the perceived malaise is so severe it ends up damaging the patient.
Reflecting on the problems with and costs of the current arrangements it is suggested therefore that a new regulatory framework be introduced, without the need for new legislation. Such a framework might start with the following principles:
- The framework would be UK-wide, not just focused on England.
- It needs to command the confidence of everyone in the sector and all stakeholders, in the UK and internationally.
- The framework should be evidence-based genuinely proportional and risk-based.
- We need to ensure the new framework minimises burden and maximises impact in the interest of all stakeholders. Every pound spent on unnecessary regulation is a pound less to support the student experience.
- The new framework must be credible, simple to understand for all, relatively straightforward to implement and cost effective.
- Trust has to be the foundation of the framework – everyone will be trying to do the right thing – and it needs to have real rigour too such that everyone knows there will be no hesitation if intervention is needed in the interests of stakeholders where warning signals show there is a problem.
- We need partnership and understanding between the regulator and the regulated; not cosy consensualism but mutual respect and understanding.
The suggested framework would start with the establishment of a new agency:
- In the interest of efficiency and effectiveness we need a new UK-wide Single National Quality Agency (which, for these purposes, we shall call Sinqua). Sinqua will comprise the range of existing agencies including the OfS, the QAA, and AdvanceHE (a sector development body) in recognition that quality assurance and an enhancement function go hand in hand. The new Agency would also be given a brief to engage with Jisc (the sector’s digital provider), UCAS (for admissions) and the Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA, which deals with student complaints) and to explore means of supporting and engaging with degree apprenticeships.
- This new umbrella agency, Sinqua, would be established as a critical partner for HE in the UK which would ensure a national approach but recognise the differences within the different nations and work with each of the respective agencies and governments to learn from the different experiences and reach a consensus on the new approach. It would redirect the brief and approach of the OfS within England to fit with a new UK wide stance, without the need to amend legislation.
- The Agency will follow the Regulators’ Code.The Code provides ‘a flexible, principles-based framework for regulatory delivery.’ Its principles include: adopting a supportive approach; avoiding unnecessary burden; a simple and straightforward approach to engagement with those regulated; a risk-based approach; and that the approach is transparent and clear information is provided.
- The Agency would have a brief to engage with research agencies to develop a joined up structured approach to linking education and research.
- It will also be expected to take a sector-wide view, to attend to the international reputation and public perception of higher education and to consider the importance of universities and colleges as anchor institutions in their communities.
- The new agency would report formally to the UK Parliament and the devolved institutions on its work and how it was delivering on its responsibilities and protecting the interests of students. Its governing board would comprise a mix of independent members, experts, sector representatives and students. The board would be accountable to the UK Parliament for the operation of the agency.
Part 2 of this blog will look at further proposals for developing a new regulatory framework and suggestions for reducing the burden of regulation.