A quiet plea for pluralism in regulation

The HEFCE consultation on quality is due out ‘soon’, and the sector is speculating about what this could mean for the future of quality and regulation of higher education.

Whilst I have not seen the consultation document, the grapevine is saying there is a strong possibility that HEFCE will be looking to bring the quality assurance portion of its work – currently contracted to the QAA –  in-house, saving money and securing its own position in the HE landscape.

This has reignited some of the debate regarding pluralism vs centralism of regulation in the HE sector and the risks/merits that come with these. Across institutions, such as the health, (compulsory) education or legal services, regulatory power is distributed broadly. Rarely is power vested in one single or totalising institution, especially where there is already precedence for self- and co-regulation. Higher education too, needs to find balance between pluralistic and centralised regulation at a time when it is becoming more globalised and marketised. This present limbo is largely due to a lack of HE legislation, but don’t get me started on that.

Whilst this is all just speculation, I would like to make the quiet case for pluralism across regulation – not just related to quality assurance.

The HE Commission argued for pluralism in its report Regulating Higher Education published in 2013, and I feel the argument still holds water.  Of course, to know how regulatory architecture should be constructed, it’s important to consider what we want it to achieve, our report cited the following:

  • Protect the interests of students
  • Ensure proper oversight and management of public funding
  • Protect the national and global reputation of the sector
  • Facilitate appropriate institutional autonomy, academic freedom and fair access
  • Sustain the standards and quality of higher education more generally

Over the course of taking evidence for our regulation report, we received warnings against a single regulatory body. As someone who was quite new to the HE policy arena, a single body looked attractive: it would save money, responsibilities would be clearer, information gathering would be much simpler – it was tough to understand what the issue was here.

More research, conversations with HE providers and regulators, showed me how much the current system was valued, and the fear of a single regulator and the power it could wield. It is subtle, but the argument for a pluralist system is strong.

The regulatory system as it stands, has been built on a foundation of overlapping entities, each playing a role in a largely autonomous system built on trust and a tradition of self-regulation. Academic and institutional freedom is woven deep into the psyche of the university sector and many would be concerned that a single regulator would be open to capture from government. With the current lack of political will for updated higher education legislation, the government is limited to statutory instruments and administrative means for manoeuvre.

These are already stretching current legislation to its limits, and indeed there have been questions over the manner in which government is granting HEFCE new powers to manage the changing, more marketised HE landscape.

There is great value in having separate organisations in charge of discrete parts of the regulatory architecture, as some of these have slightly conflicting goals or objectives, which could easily fall to the way-side if it were not for bodies championing the specific causes. Organisations like OFFA, OIA, QAA and HEFCE each have a set of roles and responsibilities in the system, whilst there is room for some consolidation, the independence of these bodies is crucial for ensuring that the regulatory landscape fulfils its wider objectives.

There are some crucial questions to ask here:

  • Should an organisation that funds HE also regulate its quality?
  • Would changes to regulatory responsibility violate the Bologna Process?
  • Would consolidation benefit students?
  • How would the changes impact institutions?

Fit-for-purpose regulation of higher education is in the public interest, but this regulation should properly reflect the sector and its unique position and needs. A pluralist system will enable the sector to flourish and fulfil its objectives in a time of great change.

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