Gordon McKenzie, writing here on Wonkhe, noted that the Green Paper proposals gave the shiny new Office for Students responsibility for quality assurance and the new Teaching Excellence Framework but a key question remained:
should the Office for Students carry out these functions itself or have the power to contract them out to separate bodies? This question places the future of QAA, HESA and perhaps HEA, all of them sector owned bodies, in the balance. The Green Paper is suitably tentative, recognising the “benefits of maintaining a co-regulated approach, the role that other bodies play in supporting wider decisions, for example in providing educational oversight on Tier 4 licence applications, and the UK-wide role”.
A lot of the discussion on the Office for Students (OfS) has focused on what Question 18 in the BIS consultation describes as the “higher education architecture”. But it’s about much more the architecture. It’s the landscaping, services, sewerage, transport, infrastructure, communications network…it’s the whole environment.
The Green Paper potentially heralds huge changes to every aspect of this wider ecosystem of HE in England, not just the architecture. If we accept that some changes are going to be made it makes no sense to transform the whole landscape at once. In order to change the architecture you still need some of those foundations and key services to be in place otherwise you’ll never get the buildings up.
But at the heart, if BIS is to do the right thing for students and to build on what is best in UK HE without increasing the burden of regulation and without massive and costly sectoral disruption then some things do need to be retained. This means that, as McKenzie notes, The Government should resist the temptation to nationalise QAA, HESA et al. Little benefit and major grief would be the outcome.
There is a compelling argument to be made for maintaining a separation between primary regulator and the provider of quality assurance. As Andrew Boggs has pointed out, separating funding from quality regulation is key to managing the risk of conflict of interest and political interference in higher education provision:
The main argument for separating these regulatory responsibilities is avoiding a conflict of interest. A funder who also oversees quality could overlook quality issues arising from underfunding. Equally, a regulator reporting to government could use quality oversight as a weapon for applying undue political pressure on autonomous HEPs.
Many are concerned that the creation of the OfS could compromise the existing buffer between BIS and universities (which has served the sector and government well for almost a century) and potentially give the Secretary of State more direct power over universities. This is not in the interests of the universities or the country and runs counter to successful HE systems elsewhere in the world.
From buffer to critical distance
In order to maintain an appropriate arm’s length distance between government and universities, the OfS should contract out key functions, in particular quality assurance. That said, the model has to be adapted to be more risk-based and proportionate. Data collection and data publication, which should be independent to remain objective, should also be contracted out rather than operated by the OfS. It would be logical, and cost-effective, to continue with the key agencies which deliver these functions at present.
Assuming that the OfS takes over the HEFCE statutory responsibility set out in section 70 of the Further and Higher Education Act, 1992, to provide for the assessment of the quality of the education at institutions for whose activities they provide financial support, it can then, as HEFCE has done, choose to contract this out to an external agency. This would make sense.
Other HEFCE functions – including its role as a charity regulator, auditor, Prevent compliance body, financial sustainability oversight – will need to be allocated to other bodies or retained by the new OfS. It’s not immediately clear where some of these should go but retention may not always be the best solution.
Wherever these responsibilities do go there is also a need to manage the transition from parts of the current regulatory regime (HEFCE and OFFA) to the OFS so that the impact on universities is minimised. It is also important to ensure that the collective knowledge and expertise of HEFCE staff is retained in the new organisation.
So we may no longer have a buffer between the higher education sector and government as we have previously known it, but there does still need to be a significant critical distance between government and the sector.
The need for QAA
Now I’m not a big fan of QAA as anyone (and there are at least three of you out there) who has read my old but surprisingly still relevant book knows. My main concern has always been that if overcooked then the quality assurance framework ends up damaging that which it seeks to assure.
However, the unfolding scenario of higher education regulation in England means we absolutely must retain QAA. However, QAA cannot remain as it currently is and will need to reform in order to reduce the burden on lowest risk providers.
- The international impact of binning an internationally respected and widely copied QA agency and framework would be huge and would send out a very negative message about the UK’s commitment to high-quality HE.
- Retaining QAA will reinforce student confidence in a changing HE environment and offer certainty to the sector in a time of change.
- QAA is best placed to operate procedures for dealing with new entrants.
- The Agency understands the sector well.
- Retaining QAA keeps a key HE function operating on a UK-wide basis (when fragmentation/devolution is more common).
- QAA is the best place to develop and operate TEF from with the best chance of delivering it effectively and efficiently.
There is substantial change required though: the quality assurance regime has to be much more proportionate and risk based for established institutions and has to deal rigorously with new entrants.
Critically though the retention of QAA would prevent the (always zealous) Home Office introducing its own new QA operation to regulate the student visa regime. A change well worth avoiding for all sorts of reasons.
On the downside, the continuation of QAA does not feel wholly joyous and does entail a continued subscription (on top of the new one for OfS). It does, though, to me at least, seem a price worth paying.
Avoiding adding to the regulatory burden
If we retain QAA and if we accept, however reluctantly, that there is going to be a new activity called the TEF, and we leave aside questions of its adequacy or otherwise as a means of assessing the quality of teaching in higher education, a fundamental question arising from the Green Paper is how is the burden of regulation on universities to be reduced rather than increased.
The important thing is for the regulatory framework to be transparent and light touch; if some parts of the sector can properly be subject to lighter touch regulation than other parts, then this possibility should not be sacrificed because of a slavish desire for a single ‘level playing field’.
We do therefore have to change the approach to quality assurance as well as develop and deliver the TEF. The QA focus has to be on new entrants and those at higher risk while reducing the burden elsewhere to ensure proportionality in assessment activity. The playing field is level, however the intensity of application of the rules is justifiably and rationally differentiated.
A dangerous cocktail
Changing the whole regulatory ecosystem or even just messing about with the architecture is immensely challenging. The temptation to look for sweeping solutions and avoid tedious details at the same time as focusing inappropriately on some minor issues at the expense of the bigger picture can be unavoidable. But trying to mix up changes in many different parts of the system at the same time does carry significant risk. The cocktail of major system, regulatory, agency and quality assurance changes could prove to be an extremely dangerous one indeed and do damage to the country’s higher education system far greater than any of its purported benefits.
It is likely to be a while before we are able to set up the new Wonkhe quality agency (trade mark pending) so, in the meantime, retaining QAA looks like the best bet. And the consequences of doing otherwise could be hugely damaging at a time when there are going to be many, many other significant challenges.
So do make sure you address Question 18 in your HE Green Paper response.
(I should record that I am a member of the HESA Board and, therefore, could be seen to have an interest in relation to that body.)