In the latest in our series on the future of higher education regulation in England, top wonks from across the sector consider the OfS’ focus on “outcomes”, competition and choice, student contracts and regulating teachers.
Amelia McLoughlan: Regulating on “outcomes” fails Disabled students
There has been some controversy recently over the idea that OfS, at the behest of ministers, might refocus on equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes. I can see why some might be cynical about such an approach. But there would be some real advantages for disabled students. Too many students that we come across at Disabled Students UK achieve the outcomes – but aren’t supported to participate in wider student life and have to battle unlawful provision in the provision on the way.
OfS has the power and opportunity to set minimum expectations and level up institutions in areas of accessibility, inclusive teaching and the utilisation of disability wisdom. Its aims and direction should be born from the needs and ambitions of students nationwide, inviting collaborations for specialist groups (such as disabled people’s organisations) with lived experience of the barriers for students, and work with students’ unions much more closely.
Just as OfS monitors compliance with the Consumer Rights Act 2015, adherence to the Equality Act 2010 should be a requirement of universities’ licence to operate – and OfS should be closely monitoring compliance with the anticipatory duty in the legislation in not only academic aspects of study but also ensuring there is sufficient support in place to enable participation in university life – especially where universities market the wider student experience to students.
Requiring providers to report information about the disability inclusion training they provide for staff, researching the extent to which providers’ are reducing disabled students’ administrative burden and monitoring the qualitative experience of disabled students should all be on the agenda – and these ways of monitoring disabled students’ access must be accompanied by clear and transparent rules for what type of findings are acceptable.
Graham Towl: What role could regulation have in academia?
Regulation as a tool for change and accountability across sectors can take place at a number of levels – the regulation of a “market”, an organisation or indeed of individuals. As academics, many of us give lectures. The elephant in the room is that we are not regulated as individual lecturers, and although the idea of us being so regulated may be anathema to some, it is entirely normative across say medicine and law.
We also have a Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) – but not for academics who teach. If we are serious about our teaching being every bit as important as our research, then why would we not at least consider such regulation? If we use the TRA as an exemplar this would have the potential to help protect students from misconduct, and ensure that there were standards required to be demonstrated for teaching status.
As a sector we could perhaps learn from colleagues in FE institutions (where there is regulation through the TRA). Such regulation could entirely reasonably extend beyond the lecture hall, in terms of the basic professional standards required of us e.g. the uncontroversial prohibition of having sex with our students. In cases of our misconduct this would help protect students from our misuses of what is sometimes a pretty steep power differential between us as academics and students whether undergraduates or postgraduates.
With “academic privilege” comes responsibilities and accountabilities. Such changes could serve to help us address some of our knotty HR misconduct problems we have whilst also embedding national standards for the qualification of us as lecturers – so that we can give our very best to student learning and development.
Andrew Boggs: Proper student contracts would really put students at the heart of the system
In a HEPI blog published earlier this year, I argued that OfS should consider reducing regulatory interventions in favour of focusing on the contracts between higher education providers and their students. The student contract could become the central and primary regulatory artefact for English higher education. One may still want to have an access and participation plan agreement in place, given the public good APPs serve, but many other regulatory reports and requirements could fall by the wayside provided that higher education providers had robust, accurate, and fair contracts with students.
Institutions attempting to game their contracts, and students feeling their contract had been broken, could trigger an OfS investigation (or review by the designated data or quality assurance providers) if, in OfS’ view, contracts were unacceptably broad or proscriptive, or if it became clear contracts were being breached. However, items like student protection plans, demanding reviews of institutional CMA-compliance, and other ad hoc requests from the regulator, could be abandoned.
Contracts could include commitments on quality of provision and protections for students with unique characteristics in need of additional support. They would still be defined by individual providers, to reflect their unique missions, offer and student populations, albeit with threshold expectations from OfS. They could also discourage unnecessary regulatory intervention given the bilateral nature of a contractual relationship – beyond an agreed threshold template, the privity of the contract would mean most issues would be between the provider and the student.
This approach would help cement the role of OfS as a market regulator versus sector manager, as was intended at the regulator’s inception. It could also help reduce red tape and bureaucracy. It could encourage meaningful risk-based regulation by providing an example of good practice (i.e. the OfS articulating what is expected in a contract), providing a real baseline of expectation across the entire sector, and put the emphasis on the needs and rights of students.
Amatey Doku: We need a collective vision for higher education
Imagine if OfS convened a proper conversation about the future of higher education. It could start by encouraging some divergent thinking – bringing together students and students’ unions, universities and other providers of HE, the FE sector, employers, trade unions, and broader civil society. The questions it would pose would be open and broad – what will higher education look like in 10 years time? How can we radically transform teaching, learning and assessment? What does the civic agenda for higher education look like in practice? What role can the sector play in climate change? And ultimately, where do we want the sector to go?
After the divergent blue sky thinking, it would be time to whittle down thinking to some key strategic priorities. This round of consultation would bring together representatives from the key stakeholder groups to find consensus on key strategic areas. Some areas may be too contentious – the idea would be to find areas of common ground between the groups. 5-8 key strategic themes would be reached, tested again for wider consultation and then agreed. For each theme there would be clear responsibilities and actions for different stakeholders – government, OfS, universities and even students’ unions to deliver on a shared vision for the sector.
After months of engagement, debates, and wrangling, “2022-2027: The new settlement for higher education” would be launched, with signatories from across the sector. It would represent a collective vision for the sector informed by months of extensive consultation. Annually, the sector and key stakeholders would meet to discuss progress against the key strategic themes. Where is progress being made? Which stakeholder hasn’t held up their side of the bargain? How is the external context shaping and challenging our strategic outlook?
Idealistic, yes. But if it works, it could be an energising and empowering approach to regulation; each stakeholder bringing a healthy level of challenge and debate to the future of the sector. And to state the obvious, this approach would require significant change to legislation – but as they say, we’re HERA for a good time not a long time.
Mary Curnock Cook: What competition and choice should look like in the 2020s
OfS was set up with an objective to increase student choice by making it easier to set up new providers. “Competition and choice” has rather faded from the headlines of government policy but there are still high quality new providers trying to innovate in higher education. Providers such as the Dyson Institute, the London Interdisciplinary School (where in both cases I serve on their governing bodies) and NMITE are all welcome challengers in the sector who will have struggled with the burden of regulation.
For them it may seem like a system designed for the incumbents – large, multi-faceted, traditional universities who have long histories of providing higher education. Many new providers might plan to start initially with validation from an existing university which is, in itself, a highly burdensome process. But traditional universities have been shying away from validation agreements because of the risks associated with the Student Protection Plan (SPP) should a validated provider fail.
That leaves new providers at the mercy of the NDAPs process. I would estimate that, between them, the Dyson Institute and the London Interdisciplinary School had to create the equivalent of ten PhD theses-worth of new documentation to feed the NDAPS application, on top of nearly 300 pre-existing supporting documents. In the same way that business regulation takes account of the size of an organisation and incentivises investment in innovation, OfS should consider proportionate processes and/or regulatory sandboxes to support the founding of new provision.
A development and advisory unit for new providers would also be welcome. Success or failure in the NDAPs process can be a cliff edge for new providers, especially where philanthropic or entrepreneurial funding is required. Creating a supportive environment where providers have more clarity about whether they are ready for degree awarding powers would make sense.