This HEPI blog is the second 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. You can read Part 1 of this series here.
The first part of this blog explored the background to the current regulatory regime, the nature of the burden on institutions and some initial suggestions for change. Part 2 will look at further proposals for developing a new regulatory framework and ideas for reducing the burden of regulation.
Having established a new UK-wide Single National Quality Agency (or Sinqua) the wider framework would have a number of specific elements:
- The new framework would include explicit recognition of the professionalism of academic staff involved in teaching, learning and assessment. This professionalism is the foundation on which the quality and standards of higher education is built.
- The framework would stress the importance of academic freedom. Over-regulation undermines academic freedom which is cornerstone of quality.
- Similarly, institutional autonomy would be highlighted as another essential component of the framework and indeed one picked out in HERA where the OfS is charged with protecting the autonomy of HEIs.
- In establishing a higher trust environmentan appropriate aggregation of measures and assessment in combination will be explicitly identified as being sufficient to assure that standards are being properly set by institutions and achieved by students and that the educational offer is providing the right quality of learning and student experience.
- Institutional commitment to widening participation needs to be sustained but greater consistency of approach by the regulator is required. Means of enhanced structured engagement between HE institutions and further education colleges have to be developed to enable a more joined up tertiary education landscape.
- The sector does need to deal with grade inflation. There are many reasons for grade inflation and the sector needs to recognise that this has to be dealt with and managed in the interest of sustaining confidence in academic standards, helping employers and supporting graduates. Assessment therefore has to be recalibrated in an agreed way across the sector, either by introducing more granular degree classification – such as upper, middle, lower first class degrees and the same for 2i awards – or by moving to what the rest of the higher education world uses, Grade Point Average. Whichever route is chosen gives every academic and every course in every institution the opportunity to reset. It takes grade inflation off the worry list for a generation.
- Sinqua would be genuinely focused on proportionality and risk-based assessment and would have a strong brief to tackle poor provision which was failing to deliver the outcomes expected by students and society.
Reducing the burden
Unnecessary and overbearing regulation is costly and distracting and does little to enhance the quality of provision or the student experience. The renewal of the framework for quality and standards provides an opportunity to address this problem which, it should be noted, is principally an issue in England. Some suggestions include:
- Freedom of Information (FOI) – HEIs should be removed from the scope ofFOI but instead there needs to be established an appropriate set of data which all have to publish in a standardised way.
- Winding up the External Examiner system. Whilst the external examiner system has served the sector well, it is no longer appropriate nor indeed functioning sufficiently well, for a mass system. Institutions cling to it but external examining is an outlier internationally and has limited efficacy and value in terms of assuring standards in an HE system which is a world away from its origins.
- Setting aside the new OfS requirement, often called the B4 condition, for the retention of all assessed work for allstudents for five years post-graduation. This has yet to be fully implemented in England but represents a huge new burden in institutions. I estimate that this will cost the English sector significantly more than £500m over the next five years.
- End the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).The TEFis in reality of no interest to prospective students, very few of whom ever cite it as a factor in their decision-making. Additionally, unlike the original TEF proposals, it carries no funding implications but rather it is a costly and unnecessary exercise. Instead of TEF we shouldre-orientate to periodic self-scrutiny and use the data currently collected and published for TEF for enhancement purposes (and in a way which minimises opportunities for league table compilers).
- The Knowledge Exchange Framework or KEFtoo adds little value to the sector for a great deal of work and should be ended and an alternative and more cost-effective formula for distribution of funds identified.
- We need to reduce government interference in the routine operation of the framework and return to the principle of just a single directive letter a year from government setting priorities. Between 2018 and 2023 the OfS received 25 letters from the Secretaries of State which have undoubtably contributed to the changing priorities of the regulator and added to the regulatory burden.
- In terms of regulation,the presumption should be a positive one rather than an assumption of guilt. We need a complete overhaul to develop a genuinely risk-based model which recognises quality and accepts the means by which academic standards are best assured. Nevertheless there has to be real transparency and straightforward routes for handling concerns and complaints from students and those regulated.
Making it Happen
The regulatory burden is so great on HE now it really is a cost we can ill afford. If we were able to reduce the weight and cost of unnecessary regulation, the demands from institutions in terms of fee increases would not be anywhere near as significant.
Better then to explore options for a new efficient and cost-effective regulatory framework, overseen by a new national quality agency, which will deliver a long term solution which works for students, institutions and stakeholders. A new high trust, proportional, low cost regime would mean that universities and colleges are better able to unleash their contribution to delivering what the country expects in terms of high quality teaching and learning, world-leading research and innovation and knowledge exchange.