Sarah Stevens is Head of Policy at the Russell Group.
As the dust (perhaps literally) settles on the Higher Education and Research Act, officials will soon be turning their minds to the task of creating a whole new regulatory framework for universities, including the creation of the Office for Students.
The Act itself sets out a long list of duties for the new regulator. Last year’s White Paper states that the OfS will be a “consumer focused market regulator” and will have competition, choice, and the student interest at its heart “for the first time”.
The early implementation of the Act will set the tone for the sector’s relationship with its new regulator. It is clear that the government envisages there will be a significant change from HEFCE to the OfS. This might mean that the OfS will be less open to co-regulatory working and consultation with providers as it focuses on the consumer interest. And to what extent will the regulator consider the broader environment within which universities operate?
Whilst there may be a wish to start from new first principles in setting up the new regulator, there is no reason why some elements of HEFCE’s current way of working – elements which have been positive for both institutions and for students – cannot be replicated in the new regime. With many HEFCE staff members transferring to the OfS, we can hope that crucial expertise and institutional memory will be retained in order to support effective and evidence-based policy making.
A formal consultation on the new regulatory framework is expected this autumn, but there will be a valuable opportunity for the sector to shape thinking on what that looks like over the coming months. Here are five suggested priorities for the new regulatory regime:
It will be important for the OfS to consider the implications of its decisions in the devolved administrations. The regulator should recognise the extent to which the higher education systems in the four nations of the UK remain interdependent, not least with regard to the need to protect the reputation of UK higher education overall. The Act includes provisions for joint working between the OfS, HEFCW, the SFC and DELNI in order to ensure that functions are delivered efficiently. These provisions should be applied broadly, to ensure that higher education agencies across the four nations consult and work closely with each other, as they have done so in the past.