September 2017 saw the Autumn Conference of AHUA (the Association of Heads of University Administration) take place at Nottingham Trent University. With an intriguing line up of speakers including Sir Michael Barber, Susan Lapworth of HEFCE, QAA’s Douglas Blackstock and the incomparable Smita Jamdar it delivered a stimulating and challenging day for Registrars from all parts of the UK.
The star turn was Sir Michael Barber who reprised some elements of his recent speech to UUK, deploying his extended landscape analogy and focusing in particular on:
- the importance of stewardship of the landscape for the long run – with all the current stresses and immediate crises it is easy to forget the long term
- the benefits and challenges of unintended consequences of interventions
- recognising that golden ages don’t have to be in the past and arguing that to unlock the new Golden Age for HE we need to ‘listen as well and see’ and focus on what is coming over the horizon
- looking out for the storms ahead and responding to the populist backlash and general lack of wider understanding of what universities do and why they are important.
Sir Michael also observed that “we’re in an era where the students are increasingly and rightly demanding value for money” and that “listening will be built into the culture of the Office for Students”. Beyond listening, Sir Michael is keen to monitor lead indicators and data which will enable dialogue before things go wrong. If we get the data systems right, he argued, then oversight can be light touch. However, the OfS has powers to intervene and will use them and in an uncompromising way if necessary (but he hopes that won’t be necessary). I suspect we have some way to go before the data (at least the non-financial kind) he wants to use is available in the form he is hoping for.
Sir Michael Barber was though very complimentary about the professionalism of university administrators whose work he noted had transformed over past two decades. This despite a question from one member about the landscape metaphor and how we ensure that the OfS is more about the garden and the gardening than the celebrity gardener. All very interesting indeed and the proof of the approach will, dare I say, be in the delivery.
In another session Smita Jamdar highlighted the recent growth in regulation affecting higher education including for example immigration rules, Prevent, quality assurance changes, the forthcoming HERA as well as more general regulation such as the Bribery Act, GDPR, corporate manslaughter and money laundering legislation. Much of this regulation demands compliance to rules which have to be built in to activity rather than simply bolted on but, she observed, this compliance culture can clash with devolution in HEIs where there is distributed decision-making and may also sometimes conflict with academic freedom. And all of this is happening as there is this decline in public trust and confidence in universities.
Regulation morphs: from can to should, from activity to culture, from bolted-on to built-in. And regulation only ever goes one way – it grows rather than shrinks. “Light touch” language may be used but regulation always increases, never declines. Smita certainly presented a grim prospectus but it did feel horribly accurate.
A panel session involving Douglas Blackstock of QAA, Susan Lapworth from HEFCE and Ben Johnson of UKRI offered more pointers to the regulatory regime of the future. All were grappling with the changes coming down the track but were not able to offer more than a few hints as to the forthcoming consultation. We were advised that the consultation will “feel” rather different, it will be hefty and there will be half a dozen or so additional sub-consultations.We were also advised to study Section 2 of HERA for pointers to the consultation’s contents. A key question from the floor was whether the future regulatory regime will be better than it is now. There were varied views from the panel with the best assessment being that it will certainly be “different”. There was also significant uncertainty about the extent we will be able to retain a coherent UK wide framework, a really important concern for AHUA, into the future.
The takeaway message was, whichever way you look at it, more regulation is on the way. As the Higher Education Research Act moves into implementation we await the consultation on how it is all intended to operate in practice. This document, when it emerges at some point in October, from what we heard at the conference, sounds like it will be the mother of all consultations. My prediction, despite the reassuring comments of Sir Michael and others, is that this is going to be far from pain free for the sector.