Protecting students through regulation

Having worked on the Higher Education Commission’s report in to HE regulation, I read Jim Dickinson’s recent critique on these pages, with great interest. As a researcher to the HE Commission, I was aware (and even hopeful) that the report would spark fruitful debate. However, the level of protection our proposals provide for students was not the criticism we had anticipated. We expected institutions would complain about ‘more regulation’ and assumed existing regulators would call for greater definition of ‘consolidation’. But not having enough protection for students was not on the list.

The Higher Education Commission is one of the only independent bodies to produce a report solely on HE regulation since the Coalition’s HE reforms were introduced. Both of the co-chairs for this inquiry are greatly admired in their respective fields. Professor Roger King is one of the UK’s foremost experts in regulation, and Professor the Lord Norton of Louth is a leading academic on constitutional affairs, a university tutor and sits in the House of Lords. Other Commissioners include representatives from universities, businesses, sector groups and all three major political parties. Whilst we currently do not have any students on the HE Commission (a criticism I agree that we should work to overcome), NUS was consulted during this inquiry.

Our report makes solid recommendations to protect students:

  • bringing alternative providers into the regulatory regime under the Common Regulatory Framework, giving all students access to the same quality measures as those at traditional universities
  • requiring Key Information Sets from institutions, providing students with like-for-like data
  • awarding a ‘kite mark’ to institutions, allowing for students to clearly see which providers are ‘regulator-approved’
  • proposing an insurance protection scheme, forging a safety net for students

In fact, the core reasoning behind our report was that students would benefit from better regulation. Through a risk based approach, regulation would be focussed and targeted. This would concentrate it where risks are higher, allowing for lower risk universities to face less external intervention – thus being able to redirect resources towards improving the institution – and requiring more assurances from higher risk providers.

The terms of reference for this report were to recommend revisions to the current HE regulatory architecture to address the anomalies that were left by the recent reforms. It would have been wholly inappropriate for the HE Commission to recommend the regulatory terms by which universities are judged. That is the job of the regulator, in dialogue with the sector and students. It was our responsibility to propose an architecture that would enable this to happen most effectively.

As a result, the context of the HE Commission report was broad – a systems-based overview, looking at structures and institutions, rather than delving into specific regulatory terms, as Dickinson seems to have wished.

We make recommendations that seek to ensure that all students studying in regulator-approved institutions in England are receiving high quality provision and that their institutions are financially viable, that they have access to redress through the OIA and a form of protection in the event of failure. BIS data approximates that there are 160,000 students currently attending under-regulated institutions, who would be brought into the regulatory regime by our proposals.

The monitoring and external intervention that would be needed for the examples that Dickinson puts forth would demand a huge amount of assurance. This would drive resources away from teaching and improvement, and could ultimately harm the student experience.

The delicate balance between protecting students and not placing too much bureaucracy on institutions is difficult to achieve, hence the debate and contention surrounding the subject. The Higher Education Commission engaged extensively on this topic, seeking to make recommendations that take a holistic view of the system, providing more protection for students than has been previously been proposed, whilst recognising that a stifled HE sector would do students no favours.

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