It was a good call that Wonkhe’s 2017 award for “most important contribution to HE policy-making” went to “The Lords Temporal and Spiritual” for their scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA). The Lords improved the Act significantly. However, reading the voluminous OfS consultation documents I’m not convinced its authors share that view.
The Act we have
You can see why that might be the case. The OfS of First Reading was a simpler, purer creature – a market regulator that would promote competition because competition gives students choice. The OfS of Royal Assent is a bit more complex. It has to meet different duties – some of them potentially conflicting – like the duties to promote competition and to have regard to the benefits of collaboration between providers. It has to think about all the tools at its disposal and take regulatory and funding decisions in ways that, on balance, “promote quality, greater choice and opportunities for students”.
That is a trickier job. But it’s the job Parliament gave the OfS. It’s the job that better fits the “market that isn’t a traditional market” that is higher education. And it’s also the job that needs to be done if the higher education sector is best to play its part in meeting the government’s ambitions for the industrial strategy.
Sir Michael Barber’s introduction touches on all this. But the authors of the other 520 odd pages don’t seem to have got the memo. At best they acknowledge, but fail fully to think through, the implications of these later additions. At worst they reinterpret Parliament’s intention to fit the previous plan.
Tough, but important questions
Let’s start with the industrial strategy. The OfS’s role in supporting broader government strategy warrants three paragraphs that can be summed up as “we will work with other people”. This brevity is excused on the grounds that “this consultation is focused on the regulatory framework”. But the regulatory framework is the core of the OfS’s job and it’s reasonable to expect some thinking about how its particular mix of funding and regulatory duties should best support a cross-government industrial strategy that has placed universities fairly central to its ambitions in terms of their contribution to place-making, skills and innovation.
Indeed, the industrial strategy’s ambitions on place, on reducing economic disparities between different parts of the country, look to be an ideal arena in which to work through the tensions between competition and collaboration for providers, especially when it comes to raising skill levels and meeting employer needs.
Similarly, the focus in the industrial strategy on turning the knowledge generated in universities into successful business and services innovation is a useful lens for examining the impact of OfS and UKRI cooperation when it comes to writing about joint-working in their annual reports.
The industrial strategy itself is a bit more forthcoming. The government will “ensure that higher education is responsive to employer and industry needs” by putting “in place a modern regulatory framework through the creation of a new regulator, the Office for Students”. And the OfS “will address employer and student needs and expectations in the short, medium and long term – considering the skills gaps that exist today, and anticipating the demands of the future economy.” Sounds great, up to a point. The answer is the framework but don’t go looking in the framework for the answer.
How committed are we to diversity?
The OfS’s duty to ensure student choice includes choices between a diverse range of provider types, courses and means of delivery. In the framework, this is interpreted as “we’ll meet the duty with new providers and two-year degrees”. Yes, they are part of the story, good in themselves, and things the government likes to talk about. But they’re a long way short of what the duty actually means, given the sheer diversity of options that could and should be offered to students.
Ministers were clear in what they said to Parliament and in the fact sheet that accompanied the amendment: the duty also encompasses the existing diversity of the sector offered by “specialist institutions and providers with distinctive characteristics, such as those of a denominational character”. How will the OfS use its range of funding and regulatory levers to ensure students continue to get those choices of genuinely diverse learning environments? This is perfect soil for Michael Barber’s landscape gardening analogy, but the framework doesn’t grasp the opportunity.
Worse, the wording of HERA explicitly includes part-time study among the diverse means of delivery the OfS has to ensure. Its precipitate decline is arguably the single biggest policy failure in higher education, a regret echoed by David Willetts recently. It gets three mentions in the framework, not one of them in relation to the diversity duty. The framework is supposed to translate the will of Parliament into the OfS’s job description. Missing bits out because they’re a bit hard or you don’t like them much isn’t an option. There’s a narrow window of opportunity in the next few months to get this right, I hope the OfS takes it.