In a recent blog Paul Greatrix showed with exemplary clarity how unlikely it is that the regulatory regime set out in the OfS consultation paper will lead to a reduction in the sector’s regulatory burden. I wholly endorse this analysis. But what is of even greater concern is that while the regulatory demands on institutions will increase, the quality of the education they offer will almost certainly fall.
And this in spite of the government’s intention that the new framework will “maintain the highest quality of higher education, safeguarding the strong international reputation of England’s providers”.
A regulator for a nationalised industry
First, a word about the new Office. Paul was good enough to refer to the paper that Bahram Bekhradnia and I wrote in 2013 advocating a single streamlined regulatory regime. One or two people have asked me whether we haven’t got what we wanted. The short answer is ‘no’. We wanted a single regulator that would subsume not only HEFCE and OFFA but also the QAA, the OIA and others. We wanted the new body to have the powers to review developments that might pose a threat to quality and value such as resource costs and constraints. Above all, we argued that the new body should report not to the government but to Parliament, on the model of the National Audit Office.
What we have ended up with is a regulator for a nationalised industry. Those who have studied such matters will know that the biggest problem with them was the almost incessant interference from Ministers over things like price hikes, plant closures, executive remuneration, etc. This pattern is already becoming clear with OfS. Hardly was the ink on the Queen’s signature on the Statute Book dry before we had announcements on grade inflation and VCs’ salaries. Will we soon see similar announcements on the growing use of unconditional offers in admissions, or the proportions of academic staff entitled to a professorial title?
A voucher system
The assumption that underpins the new regulatory regime is that increased competition is the key to raising quality (there is, needless to say, no evidence about current levels of quality or whether they are satisfactory, but of course no one is against raising them). Hence the introduction of what is effectively a voucher system for funding university teaching, the removal of the cap on full-time Home and EU undergraduate recruitment, the lowering of entry barriers to new providers, the production of ever more information to assist students’ choices, and now the new student-facing OfS. And of course Ministers would love to see serious price competition in the undergraduate market, perhaps linked to subsequent earnings or taxes paid.
Now there is certainly some evidence that increased competition improves the quality of some student services and that institutions generally are more responsive to students and other ‘customers’ than previously (although much of this is due to the long-term resource squeeze that has accompanied marketisation). It is also true that some students paying the full cost of their courses are taking their studies more seriously and putting more effort into their work. But it is also clear that increased competition has a number of impacts that are almost entirely negative. These were set out in my 2013 book with Helen Carasso.
The main ones are:
- Increased stratification of the institutions and the constituencies they serve, with institutional prestige trumping every other competitive factor and leading to the same concentrations of market power as in consumer markets generally (and for the same reasons)
- Reduced between-institution diversity of mission, with emulation being the main form of competition in a positional market where the large, multi-campus, multi-discipline, research-intensive university is the default model, and where there is little traction for institutions that really do offer something different
- Increased within-institution differentiation of activities, structures and personnel
- Poorer use of resources as institutions spend increasing sums on attention-grabbing things like advertising, marketing and branding, fancy new buildings and facilities, etc as the National Audit Office has just noticed.
- Greater instability for institutions, especially those heavily dependent on tuition revenue, with greater pressure to cut out less popular subjects and programmes that can no longer be subsidised (thus actually reducing student choice)
- A weakening of higher education’s traditional role as a critic of society as universities become more like plcs and less like ivory towers.
But perhaps the greatest damage is to quality, and especially quality assurance, the ways in which institutions, both individually and collectively, protect the quality of their programmes and awards.
In his blog, Paul referred to the statement in the 1985 Lindop Report to the effect that the best safeguard of academic standards was not external validation or any other form of external control but the growth of the teaching institution as a self-critical academic community. Underlying this is the belief – confirmed daily in the real world – that student education is a complex business requiring considered professional judgements that take account of students’ contributions to their own learning, and that are regularly tested by various forms of peer review on the basis of careful evidence.
Ministers continue to pay lip service to this principle but the truth is that the growth of market competition, the ludicrous TEF, and the increasing focus on student employability and financial outcomes, as well as the increased internal differentiation that is a direct result of marketisation, is already undermining it, and without any worthwhile system of regulation to take its place.