These remain extraordinarily difficult times for students and universities. A year into the pandemic and, whilst much has changed, there is still a long way to go.
Responses to the big issues during a crisis like this will inevitably be determined by government. This includes any consideration of global financial support and private sector rent rebates for students and rescue packages for universities and so forth but the majority of actions to address specific student concerns, academic changes and support have to happen at institutional level.
Students do need help and the modest additional allocations to those most in hardship recently announced by government are of course welcome. There is undoubtedly a lot more discussion to be had about how to support students better. But universities need some assistance too. Financial support beyond the Restructuring Regime and other general schemes still looks unlikely. But one way government could help is by addressing the significant regulatory burden on universities.
At the moment, the regulatory imposition remains substantial and costly. To universities it feels that every regulatory year is like a 40 mile SAS training hike in the Brecon Beacons with a 25 kilo rucksack weighing things down. The recent announcement that the notion of the massive, overbearing and unnecessary additional burden offered by subject level TEF has now been abandoned is a relief. However, it is important to recognise that, welcome as this step is, all it means is that the prospect of a huge additional burden has been removed, it does nothing in terms of the current regulatory weight bearing down on institutions. In other words, we were being threatened with another 10 kilos going in the rucksack but we don’t have to carry that extra weight now. we won’t travel any faster as a result.
More, more, more
Yet it remains a substantial burden. As I’ve observed here before (more than once) the volume of regulation with which higher education is required to comply has grown and grown over the years.
Even with the modest and not unwelcome suggestions for addressing the burden of bureaucracy in Minister Michelle Donelan’s letter back in September 2020 the trend still remains relentlessly upward.
Despite this palliative there has been talk of new higher ed regulation being on the cards for a while now and, as Debbie McVitty recently noted here following the publication of the government’s interim response to Augar, beyond possible future changes to funding arrangements, deferred for now, there are possibly some significant regulatory changes on the way:
In addition to consultation on the lifelong loan entitlement we’re promised a consultation on “further reforms” to the higher education system in spring 2021” – which could include thorny issues like minimum entry requirements for higher education, the treatment of foundation years, and reforms to student finance, “and other matters” (quality? freedom of speech? grade inflation?) ahead of a final decision as part of the CSR.
There’s a plan to realign teaching grant funding towards national priorities, including STEM, healthcare and “specific labour market needs” as well as a shift in the current teaching capital funding, currently allocated on a formula basis, to a system based on providers’ bids against criteria relating to economic needs and the levelling up agenda…
On balance, and I think I’m taking a reasonable view here, I’d like absolutely none of this to happen in the next couple of years or so. This rucksack is really beginning to hurt.
We could send letters
The response to Augar was a formal statement and a long awaited, if not wholly welcome, one. But I don’t think I can be alone in thinking enough with all the correspondence now please Secretary of State. We used to get one of these letters from Gavin Williamson or Michelle Donelan or their predecessors annually; I used to keep up with them but there have been so many, this is the fifth (the fifth!) since September and I don’t think I can manage it any more. You might fondly (or perhaps not) remember the vital work undertaken to track the length and import of such missives, not to mention those signatures. But there have been so many of the darned things of late that particular project has had to be paused.
The latest letter to the sector regulator filled me with dread with its comments on additional regulation. Also, quite possibly for the first time, it prompted a feeling of some sympathy for the Office for Students. I really feel too for the individual at the OfS whose awful job it is to dissect in detail and farm out the actions contained in these stern missives from a remote and disengaged parent. The other reason for perhaps accepting that its not all regulatory wine and roses in Lime Kiln Close is that the OfS has an awful lot of recalcitrant children of its own to deal with too.
The OfS is a bit like the sole teacher on a remote island trying to teach the same lesson to a single class with hundreds of kids of different ages from pre-school to A levels. Even when all the pupils are as well behaved as those mature universities which have been around for decades or centuries it is hard to imagine a single message resonating with such a wide range of audiences. Yet that is what the regulator often seems to be trying to do. For all the talk of risk-based regulation and proportionality, the translation of the Secretary of State’s or Minister’s edicts into direction to the sector tends to be in a single tone which feels to the older readers that it is perhaps aimed more at the troublesome infants and yet is intended to apply equally to all. Or perhaps not. I think there is a lot more to be done to address the issue of genuinely risk-based regulation and I really hope the English sector is able to engage in a sensible dialogue with the OfS and its new chair about how this might be made real. In the meantime, I have a less sophisticated proposal…
Hooray! Hooray! It’s a Holi-Holiday
Back in September we were being promised a substantial regulatory bonfire which does not appear to have really taken yet and is still very much at the kindling stage. I’d be happier if there was a willingness to pour some petrol on this fire (in a safe way of course) but I fear there isn’t much prospect of this at the moment. I therefore have a different proposal. What I’d suggest is a regulatory holiday, a burden-reducing pause if you will. We are being told (I think) by Ministers not to book any holidays at the moment so let’s hope they can at least grant us some respite in a different way. What does this particular holiday package look like then?
- No new regulation – As a first step, deferring any consideration of introducing any new regulation for at least another year would be a really positive development. And then a suspension of the majority of higher education regulatory interventions at least to the end of the current calendar year.
- TEF – The OfS has been asked to develop a “revised and invigorated” institutional level TEF with the first group of assessments to be completed and published by 2022. Work on this should be suspended and the first assessments should be delayed for at least a further year until 2023 at the earliest.
- Freedom of Information – universities should be suspended from their obligations under the terms of the act until 2022. They would of course be free to respond to requests but simply not required to do so.
- TRAC – continue the suspension of TRAC for at least another year.
- All data requests and consultations by all agencies to be suspended until 2022.
- CMA – its remit should exclude higher education for a year. And the OfS required review of compliance this Spring should be deferred until 2022.
- Free speech – there really is not an issue with free speech in universities. The government’s idea for a ‘Free Speech Champion’ appears to be an ideologically driven assault on higher education designed to appeal to those who have most access to platforms to proclaim their views about how they are being denied a platform. It is an unnecessary additional regulatory artifice which will be costly and burdensome for no benefit for anyone. So, it’s not in place yet but let’s have a pause on this one for, say, the next decade or so.
- OfS takes a break – The most significant element of this regulatory architecture for universities in England is of course the Office for Students. There are a number of elements to the temporary changes suggested here:
- Regarding consultations there is already one, on the higher education admissions system in England, which is paused until at least Autumn 2021. This should be extended to next year. There are also three ongoing consultations at present on financial penalties, reportable events and publication of information about institutions. These are in the scheme of things, relatively minor and should be concluded and, assuming a modest impact only, implemented as amended.
- One recently closed consultation, on regulating quality and standards in higher education, is much more wide-ranging in scope and its potential impact on the sector is significant – further consideration of this issue should therefore be deferred until 2022.
- I would suggest that the next period be spent by the OfS in reflecting on developing a genuinely risk-based approach to regulation. Most of its purpose as derived from HERA is predicated on a competitive model of HE in England which was dubious when originally articulated and already looks like something from a different era.
There are other things which could be considered such as Prevent, but this is something where the bureaucracy around it is not massive until there is an issue but the data has shown that there really aren’t many significant matters in HE and they are already addressed through universities’ welfare arrangements or under the 1986 act. Some would argue for a suspension of REF but I suspect there is not a huge reduction in burden which would result right now given where we are in the cycle. The OIA remains an imperfect vehicle for addressing student complaints beyond institutions but in the current circumstances it would be hard to make a case for them to pull the shutters down.
I am sure there are others but you get the idea of the kind of holiday I fancy this year.
A university staycation
Governments always say they want to cut red tape and start a bonfire of regulation. The fire isn’t really taking at the moment so we need something else to. Given the financial hits universities are taking, the quite unattractive restructuring regime and that the prospect of further financial support is unlikely then cutting the regulatory burden, at least temporarily, would represent a positive development and a major boost to the sector. A university staycation perhaps.
So, come on Ministers, give us a break, let us put our rucksacks down for a while and have an officially-sanctioned regulatory holiday.