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Innovation under Regulation

  • 23 April 2024
  • By David Phoenix
  • This HEPI blog was kindly written by the Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University and Chief Executive of LSBU Group, Professor David Phoenix.

Has regulation of higher education gone too far? Those in Government would say certainly not and most likely point at the National Audit Office’s recent report on student loan fraud at franchised providers or explain that – given higher interest rates have increased the cost of funding the student loans system in England by £10bn a year – successful graduate outcomes are crucial to keeping the system affordable.

Ask those in the sector, however, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the current system is working well.

Added to the issues posed by the primary regulators, OfS and Ofsted, many technically-focused universities face further challenges. Courses with accreditation are subject to scrutiny by Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies – which do not have a consistent approach for engaging with education providers – and apprenticeships and Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) are additionally regulated by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

The House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee summarises this issue succinctly:

The proliferation of regulators in the higher education sector has caused duplication and red tape, increasing the burdens on providers—particularly in the area of graduate apprenticeships, where at least four other regulators have responsibilities in addition to the OfS. This issue is exacerbated by the apparent lack of effective collaboration between regulators.

This proliferation of post-16 regulators – particularly in the technical education space – disincentives universities from collaborating with colleges and others to develop and signpost pathways for learners. The bureaucratic burden of tertiary education quality assurance also prevents them from innovating to develop new qualifications and courses at the speed needed to meet evolving employer demands. This is ironic, because – as the development of T Level and HTQs has shown – the Government is keen to boost the provision and take up of technical qualifications.

HTQs are not a qualification in themselves but a ‘quality mark’ for existing Level 4 and 5 courses indicating their alignment to employer-led occupational standards. Why can’t we learn from the cost and constraints generated through the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) model that we dispensed with last century and push this idea of a ‘quality mark’ further – creating one not just for individual courses but for providers?

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education could introduce a new kitemark for universities and institutions that have a proven track record of validating technical education provision at Level 4 and above. Such recognition could be based on a basket of measures such as validation experience, employer engagement, experience of working with professional bodies etc to provide evidence of scale and standing in this space. Once received, such a kitemark would free the institution up from certain monitoring and regulatory validation requirements – enabling them to approve programmes in much the same way traditional bachelor’s qualifications have been validated for decades. 

So, if a university was approached by an employer about developing a new module for an existing higher technical course to meet a specific business need, they would be able to develop and validate it quickly under their degree awarding powers; and, with their technical education kitemark would then be exempt from having the to additionally seek approved by IfATE. This would not only decrease the cost burden but would increase the speed of response to local employer needs and help support innovation within an existing, well-tested framework. It would also help support the differentiation of the sector by enabling some institutions to become more specialised in professional and technical delivery. Given qualifications at Level 4 and above have to align with international quality standards if they are credit-bearing, the current system seems to focus on a low-trust, highly bureaucratic model. Under this proposal universities and OfS registered providers which are successfully recognised would be able to put their focus, not on monitoring visits and additional paperwork, but on delivery, collaboration and responding to local needs.

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