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The regulation of student education: are the quality wars back?

  • 4 January 2024
  • By Roger Brown
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Professor Roger Brown, former Vice-Chancellor of Solent University. Roger recently wrote for HEPI on neoliberalism in English higher education which you can read here.

As a scarred veteran of the so called ‘quality wars’ – seemingly endless disputes from the mid-80s to the late-90s about the shape and control of the regulation of student education – the author has been sufficiently piqued by the House of Lords Committee’s remarkable criticisms of the Office for Students (House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee, 2023) and some of the recent HEPI-led discussion (Ashwin and Clarke, 2022; Boggs, Clarke and Ashwin, Halford and Wells, McClaran, all 2023) to offer a few reflections on the issues that appear to underlie the present rift between the Government and the sector.

Background

First, a bit of background. Prior to 1992 each side of the binary line was regulated differently. The polytechnics and colleges were subject to a dual regime of oversight by the Council for National Academic Awards (the CNAA, whose degrees and diplomas they offered) and inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (the latter’s judgements linked from 1990 to funding by the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council). By contrast, the universities were not subject to any external regulation except where some of their vocational courses were subject to professional body accreditation (which included HMI for teacher training). It was only in 1989, and after quite prolonged debate, that the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals set up an Academic Audit Unit (AAU) to scrutinise and report on universities’ quality assurance arrangements.

The Government’s almost unheralded decision in late 1991 to abolish the binary line meant that decisions had to be taken, and taken rapidly, about the regulation of the newly enlarged and unified system. What was eventually agreed was a dual regime that effectively carried forward the existing core strands of regulation:

  • A new agency (the Higher Education Quality Council) owned by, and answerable to, the institutions through their representative bodies, absorbing the AAU and the relevant functions (and staff) of the CNAA. The agency’s main purpose was to provide assurance about the institutions’ quality arrangements (it also had an important enhancement role, long since divorced at sector level from quality assurance and now – at least in theory – the responsibility of AdvanceHE);
  • The new Higher Education Funding Councils inheriting and developing the quality judgments on individual subjects at individual institutions previously made by HMI (some of whom transferred to the new bodies). The main purpose of the new assessments was to inform funding and student choice and indeed a scoring system (initially with three grades, later with four) was devised for this purpose.

The author was heavily involved in the discussions that led to these arrangements, first as Chief Executive of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics and then as Chief Executive of HEQC. He has since written about them (e.g., 2004, 2013, 2018) also drawing on his  experience as a senior official at the Competition and Markets Authority’s predecessor, the Office of Fair Trading.

The new regime soon became controversial. There was much complaint about excessive bureaucracy and ‘underling assessment’. In 1997 the Government and the representative bodies agreed to bring the two strands together in the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). QAA was still formally owned by the institutions through the representative bodies but acted as a contractor for the Funding Councils for assessment. Discussions continued on how the existing regulatory processes could be integrated. Eventually it was agreed that the scrutiny of quality assurance arrangements at institutional level should continue but be combined with a more limited programme of assessments (as ‘disciplinary audit trails’) which finally came to an end in 2005. Peace reigned, but this was by no means the end of the matter.

With the introduction of fees and the partial liberalisation of the rules for degree awarding powers and university title we were well on the way to what can be seen as a higher education ‘neo-market’, at least in England (Brown, forthcoming). Partly as a quid pro quo for the dismantling of assessment, therefore, institutions were required to publish much more information about quality and standards. This included from 2005 the results of the National Student Survey – the survey of final-year undergraduate students’ views about course teaching and related matters – which were to be incorporated into a Key Information Set for each course. Finally, in November 2015, the Government proposed the establishment of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) under which each institution would be graded for the quality of its teaching and learning, initially at institutional level but putatively at subject level (subsequently found to be infeasible).

The TEF would now be run by a new agency, the Office for Students (OfS) with the job of increasing competition and protecting students and which would be more accountable to the Government. However, in what was by now a familiar compromise, the OfS would be required to work in partnership with the QAA as the independent ‘designated quality body’ under the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). This partnership has now broken down and the Government is reviewing the position (Boggs, 2023).

How can we account for this instability? Why has it proved to be so difficult to establish permanent regulatory arrangements for higher education in the UK?

Discussion

To start with, it may be worth distinguishing the two dimensions along which any regulatory regime for higher education may be analysed: purpose and accountability (resourcing and expertise are also relevant).

Purpose

The issue here is what is the chief purpose of the regime: for whose benefit, primarily, is the regime intended? Is it meant primarily to inform decisions (a) by the institution concerned or by institutions collectively, or (b) by third party users/funders? Purpose then determines the type of outcome – in reality, the information that the regulatory process produces – that is desired. Crudely, is it a ‘prosey’, nuanced ‘strengths and weaknesses’ report aimed at institutional decision makers but mostly opaque to the casual reader, or a graded assessment that can then be fairly easily translated into league table numbers (and institutional promotional material)?

Accountability

To whom is the regulator primarily accountable? Who appoints (and removes) the regulators? Who monitors their performance? If it is to a range of interests, which one is the most powerful? Historically, regulatory agencies have mostly either been mainly Government-owned (as OfS is) or mainly sector-owned (HEQC, QAA); CNAA had its own Charter. In reality, of course, in such an important public service as higher education, regulators are accountable to a wide range of stakeholders who also include the media, investors and research funders and the general public as well as students and prospective students and their families and advisers.

Resources and expertise

It might seem obvious but a crucial consideration in determining the quality and effectiveness of any regulatory regime is/are the quantum and quality of the resources deployed. It is one of the author’s longstanding gripes that the resources devoted to the regulation of UK higher education have never been adequate, or, even when sufficient, been used to best advantage to improve student education. Even now, the cost of the OfS and the QAA (to the extent to which it is still relevant) are only an arithmetical fraction of total expenditure on teaching. Yet much of this resource is wasted on what is essentially gaming the system as institutions put much expensive management time into compiling and refining their TEF submissions and putting the best face they can on the outcomes.

Almost equally important is the experience and expertise of those doing the regulating, especially if they do not have recent experience of operating at a suitable level in an appropriate institution. Whilst an aptitude for regulation is clearly a necessary quality in a regulator, it is not in anyone’s interest for the regulation of student education to become a ghetto or a career in itself.

Conclusion

What does this brief excursus suggest about the best way of regulating UK higher education for the future?

Three things seem clear.

First, student learning is too complex an activity to be effectively regulated by an external agency. The institutions and their staff just have to be trusted, and the resources available for regulation – both at the system level and within institutions – have to be put to the best possible use. There just is no alternative.

Second, whilst the achievement of one regulatory purpose may incidentally contribute to the achievement of another, different purpose, it is very difficult to combine processes that have quite different objectives. In particular, a process that primarily aims to provide information to institutional managements about the efficacy of their procedures for protecting quality is very unlikely to be able to yield the accessible and simplified market information that the Government and other stakeholders deem to be necessary for student choice, diversity and value for money. At the most, such a process can only provide reassurance that the institution can be reasonably relied upon not to drop its quality and standards (not defined here) below a certain level.

Nevertheless, provided that it can be done with appropriate expertise, this – the former process of audit or accreditation – remains in the author’s view the best use of the resources that are likely to be available for external regulation (on both quality and efficiency grounds) in the future. The fact that this view may now be unfashionable does not make any less valid.

Third, whatever agency is charged with the job of regulating UK higher education has to have the confidence of both the Government and the sector, as well as other important stakeholders like the NUS and UCU. This was true for a while at least with the CNAA, HEQC and QAA. Perhaps what we need is a new CNAA that would accredit institutions – both new and existing ones – and support them in maintaining that accreditation. If, on the other hand, what is desired is a series of judgements about the quality of education in specific institutions and subjects/programmes then it might be better – or at least clearer – to recreate HMI as agents of the Department using an updated and modified version of the original quality assessment framework (though it is not clear where you would get the necessary resources). Ideally, any new regime should draw primarily on a cadre of experienced assessors on fixed-term secondments from their institutions, so that they have both the necessary authority with the institutions and the necessary humility (nothing concentrates a secondee’s mind as much as the fact that s/he will have to re-enter the sector when their time as an assessor comes to an end).

Envoi

Many years ago, the Lindop Committee (1985), drawing on a very considerable experience of regulating higher education, stated that ‘the best safeguard of academic standards is not external validation or any other external form of external control but the growth of the teaching institution as a self-critical academic community’.

Nothing that has happened since has undermined that view, which still underpins (just about) the rules for degree awarding powers and university title. However the increased competition that has accompanied the neo-market has been a game changer as far as regulation is concerned. Not only has control moved away from the institutions to the centre but the range of areas covered by external regulation has expanded to cover freedom of speech and even sexual behaviour on campus which are very far from student learning as usually conceived. On top of this, the regulation of student education has moved away from being a dialogue between the Department and the institutions to being subject to Ministerial and political whims and fads.

There is a paradox here. At the same time as market-like behaviour has increased, the threat to quality has grown as internal quality processes are distorted for external ends (grade inflation, anyone?). This then increases the pressure for external control that in turn forces institutions to put into the marketing of quality the resources they should be putting into the protection of quality. There will be no end to this death spiral until student education is once again treated as an experience to be gained rather than as a product to be traded. Who will be prepared to say (and practise) this?

References

Ashwin, P. and Clarke, C. (2022) The Office for Students, expertise and legitimacy in the regulation of higher education in England. HEPI Blog 4th September https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2022/09/04/the-office-for-students–expertise-and-legitimacy-in-the-regulation-0f-higher-education-in-england/ [Retrieved 13th October 2023]

Boggs, A.M. (2023) Where do we go from here? Quality assurance in English higher education HEPI Policy Note 44 February. Oxford: HEPI

Brown, R. (2004) Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The UK Experience since 1992 (London and New York: RoutledgeFalmer).

Brown, R. (2018) Changing patterns of accountability in the UK – From QA to TEF, In E.Hazelkorn, A.C.McCormick and H.Coates (eds) Research Handbook on Quality, Performance and Accountability in Higher Education (pp. 457-471) Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Brown, R. (Forthcoming) Neoliberalism in UK Higher Education: The English higher education neo-market. Oxford: HEPI.

Brown, R. and Bekhradnia, B. (2013) The Future Regulation of Higher Education in England Oxford: HEPI.

Clarke, C. and Ashwin, P. (2023) How should the Office for Students respond to the ‘most excoriating parliamentary report in the last decade’? HEPI Blog 9th October https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2023/10/09/how-should-the-office-for-students-respond-to-the-most-excoriating-parliamentary-report-in-the-last-decade/ [Retrieved 13th October 2023]

Halford, E. and Wells, M. (2023) The implications of not having an independent Designated Quality Body – and lessons from abroad HEPI Blog 13th February https://www.hepi.ac.uk//2023/02/13/what-next-for-quality-assurance-in-england-the-implications-of-not-having-an-independent-designated-quality-body/ [Retrieved 13th October 2023]

House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee (2023) Must do better: the Office for Students and the looming crisis facing higher education.2nd Report of Session 2022-23 HL Paper 246 5 September.

McClaran, A. (2023) Good Regulation: Lessons for England from the Australian Experience? HEPI Policy Note 47 June 2023 Oxford: HEPI.

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